What do Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury and Pope Francis all have in common? Bad luck if you said they are all closet Nazis, but congratulations if you said they are the subjects of the four most recent films of New Zealand screenwriter Anthony McCarten.
I had major issues with each of “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody,” but had no such qualms with “The Two Popes.” This Netflix original film is a real charmer: Warm, witty and surprisingly moving, this comedy-drama is the most unlikely bromance you will see all year.
The two-hander is based on the crisis in the Catholic church – no, not that one – when the arch-conservative Pope Benedict XVI resigned suddenly in February 2013, citing a “lack of strength of body and mind” (full disclosure: that’s something I cite most days), thus breaking a tradition going back some 700 years that popes always die in the role. Bakers have a similar tradition, I believe.
Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger’s replacement was the Argentinian Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Sixteen years Pope Benedict’s junior, Pope Francis was a man of both the cloth and the people, a liberal soul and a reformer (by Catholic standards, at least).
McCarten, a lapsed Catholic, was inspired to tell this story after visiting the Vatican and witnessing one of Pope Francis’ open-air masses in Rome. He subsequently imagined a 2012 meeting between the pope at the time and the man who would replace him, in which Bergoglio flies to Italy, in the hope that the man with the big pointy hat will sign off on his retirement plans – little knowing that Pope Benedict himself has something similar in mind.
These men of God are played by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, neither of whom have been this good in many a year. It’s often been easier to admire Hopkins – 82 this month – for his protestant work ethic than his recent screen performances (although I did enjoy him in HBO’s “Westworld,” another role in which he gets to “play God”). But, miracle of miracles, he’s perfect here as the prickly German pope – a sourpuss in vestments enduring a crisis of faith about his ability to rule a scandal-ridden religion that’s in danger of losing some of its 1.2 billion followers worldwide.
Opposite him is Pryce, who, with his large-frame glasses, bald spot and white side hair, finally offers us an answer to the question: What would Larry David look like if he were the leader of the Catholic church?
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Pryce’s Bergoglio is Benedict’s mirror image: Where the latter is cold – he dines alone at night, insisting upon stodgy Bavarian fare that looks suspiciously like kneidlach in chicken soup; his entertainment coming solely from playing the piano and watching an Austrian TV show about a crime-solving German shepherd dog – Bergoglio is warm, always looking to engage with the people around him and refusing to live a cloistered life.
There’s something undeniably formulaic about presenting the drama as a theological culture clash – traditionalist vs. progressive – but what elevates proceedings are the performances and McCarten’s script, which retains a light tone throughout (established in the opening scene) and is never preachy.
There are wonderful scenes at the papal summer retreat in Castel Gandolfo, where the two holy men engage in a witty back-and-forth that is more catty than catechism. For example, when Bergoglio insists that some of his previous comments – on priests marrying and homosexuality – were misquotes, Benedict snipes: “Might I suggest you try telling newspapers the opposite of what you think? Your chances of being quoted correctly might improve.”
Bergoglio also gives as good as he gets. When he tells Benedict that he likes to tango (“I’m Argentinian; football and tango are compulsory”) and is asked by a horrified pope if he dances with a partner, he responds: “One might look foolish if one attempted the tango alone. So for the sake of the dignity of my office – yes, with someone.”
Although the film is called “The Two Popes,” it is clear that the filmmakers are only interested in recounting one man’s backstory. There is no delving into Ratzinger’s troubling past in the Hitler Youth or his wartime service in Germany’s anti-aircraft corps and infantry division. In fact, the closest we get to any recognition of that is when someone in a bar refers to him as a Nazi. Instead, McCarten prefers to focus, perhaps understandably, on the “likeable” pope, who has succeeded in dragging the Catholic church into, well, the 20th century at least.
While it will come as no surprise to learn that this text-heavy two-hander was originally a play (it’s a classy affair – lots of Latin phrases, including presumably the first-ever translation of an ABBA song into Latin, and not a single innuendo about “kissing the papal ring”), viewers may be surprised how visually rewarding it is as well. Then again, given that the director is Fernando Meirelles, whose previous works include the mesmeric “City of God” and stylish “The Constant Gardener,” perhaps it shouldn’t be such a shock. What is surprising, though, is that this is his first movie since 2011’s muddled “360.”
As well as staging life-changing moments from Bergoglio’s life to powerful effect, including his troubled history with the military junta that ruled Argentina in the late 1970s, Meirelles also stages the pomp and circumstance surrounding the Vatican brilliantly – aided in no small part by a stunning recreation of the Sistine Chapel that literally drew gasps from the audience at the screening I attended.
Then there is the film’s depiction of the arcane method in which the conclave selects a new pope: Each of the cardinals writes a name on a piece of paper, which is then pierced with red thread and bundled with the other votes for that candidate (I’d call it old-fashioned, but you should see how they count the votes here in Israel). It’s all wonderfully theatrical, just like the use of white smoke to show the world when a two-thirds majority has been achieved and God’s next big cheese on Earth has been selected.
The film achieves such a universality that occasionally I found myself imagining a Jewish sequel, in which a female leader of the Reform movement in the United States finds herself in a theological debate with one of Israel’s chief rabbis. Sadly, it’s harder to picture a similarly happy ending to that particular story.
Anyway, these are clearly heady days for Netflix’s film division, given the phenomenal success of Martin Scorsese’s “The Irishman” – which the streaming service says was viewed by 26.4 million households worldwide in its first week. It also just topped the Golden Globes film nominations list, with six nods for “Marriage Story,” five for “The Irishman” and two for the Eddie Murphy comedy-drama “Dolomite is My Name.”
“The Two Popes” got four nominations, including best drama and best screenplay, which is no less than this heavenly delight deserves. And if both Pryce and Hopkins win in their best actor/best supporting actor categories next month as well – well, amen to that too.