Audrey Kupferberg: The Two Popes | WAMC

Audrey Kupferberg: The Two Popes

Feb 4, 2020

Audrey Kupferberg

I saw a trailer for The Two Popes a couple weeks ago but couldn’t figure out the storyline.  Then, with the recent announcement that this Netflix film has garnered three Oscar nominations, I decided to pay closer attention.  After all, with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in the starring roles, and Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, whose work includes The Constant Gardener and City of God, at the helm, The Two Popes has prestige credits.  Add to those names, that of writer Anthony McCarten, who penned Bohemian Rhapsody and Darkest Hour, and suddenly The Two Popes landed in my must-see column.

I was not disappointed.  The Two Popes is a feature film version of the aspects of the lives and special relationship between German-born Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) and Argentinian Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio who later became Pope Francis (Pryce).  In 2012, the Cardinal contacted Pope Benedict to ask that he be retired from his duties as Cardinal. 

That is where the screenplay begins to take life.  What follows is a two-fold narrative.  The early years of the Cardinal who is known for his progressive ideas unfold, showing the poverty, and then the violence and torture that were experienced by the Cardinal’s countrymen and fellow clergy in the 1970s and 80s. We witness the Cardinal’s even younger days when he makes a dramatic decision to forsake marrying the woman whom he loves in order to enter the Priesthood.  While all this is being revealed, we actually learn very little about Pope Benedict.  We know he is a conservative, and we hear a man in a neighborhood bar refer to him as a Nazi.

As the film progresses, we learn a great deal about the inner workings of each man.  At no time does the film send out an appeal to find god in the Catholic religion.  There is no intention to proselytize.  If viewers who are strong believers in the Roman Catholic faith see this film, they likely will enjoy the story and revel in the opportunity to see beautifully conceived and decorated Vatican rooms.  If viewers are doubters or against organized religion in general, they can enjoy the experience as dramatic and sometimes amusing theater about two intelligent, passionate elderly men.

There is a strong sense of intimacy to the scenes between Hopkins and Pryce, strengthened by Meirelles’ restrained use of handheld moving camera.  There is a sense of immediacy in the scenes of riots in the streets and horrific military actions in Argentina during the 1970s.  Meirelles handles the various genres within The Two Popes with delicacy, and McCarten’s complex screenplay is sensitively interpreted.  

A film project about aged religious men might cause potential studios and individual backers to flinch.  Kudos to Netflix for bringing the project to fruition.

Audrey Kupferberg is a film and video archivist and appraiser. She is lecturer emeritus and the former director of Film Studies at the University at Albany and co-authored several entertainment biographies with her husband and creative partner, Rob Edelman.

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