On the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005 the Catholic Church found itself at cross roads. With the need for modernisation clashing with the continued conservatism of John Paul’s legacy. And it is here that Fernando Meirelles beautiful adaptation of a screenplay by Anthony McCarten starts. Taking us on a glorious if largely unknown journey into the relationship between the men who would vie to be John Paul’s successor. The Two Popes is at its heart a two man stage play, that shines on screen in the hands of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. Both actors bringing their characters to life with a delicate and assured theatre like direction.
As John Paul’s legacy as Pope haunts the search for his replacement. Two men sit at the heart of the future direction of the Catholic Church. The staunchly conservative Jospeh Ratzinger (Hopkins) and the more liberal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce). However, despite a close run contest, its Ratzinger who wins the assigned number of votes needed to become the next Pope. A decision that Bergoglio struggles with, despite fearing the challenges he would face in the modernising the Papal throne. In a church haunted by child abuse coverups, diminishing numbers of followers and outdated views.
With the church going from one controversy to the next, Bergoglio writes to the Pope Benedict XVI asking for permission to retire. Only to be invited to the Papal home to discuss his views and opinions on the future of the church. With both men butting heads in a tangle of disagreement, religious discussion and social debate. However, as time wears on, both men find solace in the presence of each other. There disagreements interfacing with a crisis of faith, need for change and reconciliation. As events lead up to the shocking resignation of Pope Benedict XVI and the eventual transfer of power to Pope Francis.
Anthony McCarten’s screenplay sings in the hands of Hopkins and Pryce. While in turn creating moments of beauty as both men find peace and serenity in the hands of each other. Creating an unexpectedly rich drama that carries real warmth and humanity throughout. With hope, fragility and faith sitting centre stage as discussion turns to an unlikely friendship. And while the screenplay undoubtedly mixes both fact and fiction, the end result is a message of reconciliation we should all hear.
However, what truly makes The Two Popes a sublime two man play, is the delectable performances of Hopkins and Pryce. Both men capturing the audience with a quiet but assured character study. While weaving personal insecurities and human fragility with theology and social belief. In turn asking more questions than can be answered on the role of religion in society.
Meanwhile Fernando Meirelles‘ brings a documentary like focus in the style of each scene. Allowing his actors to take control of the narrative, while submerging the dialogue in rich colour and light. Playing with sound, music and locations to embody the differences between the two men. While equally using delicate humour in the films design to accentuate their similarities.
Whether you are a believer or an atheist, The Two Popes speaks to a need to find solace and meaning in the arms of another. And in a divided world where ideologies often build walls rather than dismantling them. There are strong messages at play in this delightfully calm and human journey.
Director: Fernando Meirelles