By Douglas Laman
Special to the Anna-Melissa Tribune
The idea that the best leaders are the ones who don’t want to become a leader is heard early on in “The Two Popes,” now streaming on Netflix, and it’s an apt descriptor for Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce). An easygoing fellow open to new practices (a sharp contrast to the Catholic Church’s default to tradition) who works as the Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Bergoglio is preparing to retire.
This is a task that requires him to get the permission of the current Pope, Benedict XVI (played by Anthony Hopkins), who’s the total opposite of Bergoglio in every way. Turns out, Bergoglio’s prospective retirement is coming just as Benedict XVI is facing a slew of scandals that mean he could use the aid of Bergoglio.
Before it becomes clear how Benedict needs Bergoglio’s help as much as Bergoglio could use Benedict’s approval for retirement, “The Two Popes” is content to have these two Popes (one currently in the position of power, the other unknowingly set to gain the title one day) hash out their differing personalities and approach to the Catholic Church in debates. One’s a strict rule follower, the other is a loose cannon who likes pizza. No, they’re not the stars of an NBC sitcom. That’s the dynamic at the heart of “The Two Popes,” from Fernando Meirelles, one of the two directors of “City of God.”
“The Two Popes” is a simple movie, even on a character level. Despite so much of the screentime being spent on the dialogue between our two lead characters, the screenplay by “Darkest Hour” writer Anthony McCarten doesn’t so much make the Popes human beings as it does render them as broad “Odd Couple” archetypes. Sometimes they stand-in for certain political ideologies (no prize for what idealogy Benedict XVI is supposed to represent when he goes on a tangent emphasizing the importance of walls). Sometimes they serve as vessels for comedy stemming from the juxtaposition of religious figures engaging in casual activities like drinking Fanta soda. Most of the time, though, “The Two Popes” engages with its central characters in a surface-level way.
This lack of deeper introspection means “The Two Popes” is as fluffy as a cloud. Its casual hangout vibe never leads anywhere deeper, nor does it deliver exceptionally enjoyable, light entertainment. This approach is mostly inoffensive at least, save for how this tone trips up any of the times “The Two Popes” tries to tackle darker material, chiefly the Catholic Church sexual-abuse cases. However, this thinly-sketched affair does ensure that two reliably solid performances are around to help carry the two-hour runtime. If legendary performer Pryce could deliver fine work in “The Man Who Invented Christmas,” it’s no surprise to see that he delivers a good lead performance under the direction of Meirelles.
The best quality that Pryce brings to his turn as Bergoglio is a believable sense of easiness. Bergoglio is a man whose everyman manner never feels like a strained act. It comes as natural as can be. You can totally see yourself feeling at ease around such an amiable guy. Pryce’s work in “The Two Popes” thrives on a sense of tangible humanity that the script struggles to capture. Of the two leads, Hopkins has the more rigidly defined character to play in the form of tradition-bound Pope Benedict XVI. However, that doesn’t stop Hopkins from communicating an effective sense of weariness in his performance. As the movie goes on, Hopkins nicely captures how the growing complexities of this job are taking its toll on this religious leader.
Meirelles’ direction opts heavily for grand wide shots that allow for every nook and cranny of the assorted decadent environments (including set re-creations of rooms in The Vatican) that the two titular lead characters converse in. “The Two Popes” is not short on extravagant production design, that’s for certain, though such lavish visual choices are in service of a screenplay that ultimately keeps “The Two Popes” from fulfilling its fullest potential. This is frequently an agreeable motion picture. But it’s one that also takes safe and easy narrative routes, especially in terms of rendering the rapport of its lead characters as a super predictable odd couple routine. “The Two Popes” is blessed with two noteworthy central performances, but it could use some forgiveness for its more derivative storytelling elements.
Douglas Laman is a film critic who, when not watching movies, attends Collin College and hangs out with friends. For more of his work and ramblings, visit his website at www.landofthenerds.blogspot.com.