As one of the most surprisingly affecting films in recent memory, The Two Popes centres on a key historic event – the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI – while delivering an emotional and heartfelt story about friendship.
Let’s start with the film’s central performances by Jonathan Pryce (Pope Francis) and Anthony Hopkins (Pope Benedict XVI). Both are undeniably excellent in the film but it’s Pryce who gets to exhibit a wide range of strong emotions, yet through a filter of nuance and subtlety. Pope Francis is presented as a quiet, humble man and Pryce expertly handles significant emotional restraint. In contrast, Hopkins’ Pope Benedict XVI is commanding and headstrong. The superb writing paired with the aforementioned performances result in a mesmerising character drama, with much of the film being dedicated to extended dialogue between the two popes due to their diametrically opposed views. It is precisely this clash of opinion that helps propel the story forward. Both men are humanised in scenes in between the conflict, as they discover more about (and befriend) each other. The development of their relationship in turn intensifies and develops the underlying tension that much more as the film progresses. The final product is a heartwarming story of understanding, personal growth and not allowing differing views to get in the way of friendship.
Perhaps what is most surprising is the script’s sense of humour, which manages to be intelligent and hilarious and at the same time very subtle and often awkward. Much of the humour can easily be missed due to its subdued, un-telegraphed and authentic delivery. It also helps to further humanise the two characters and make them more relatable, resulting in surprising emotional weight as the film reaches its conclusion. Who would’ve ever thought that two Popes would once be an iconic (dare I say comedic) film duo? Make no mistake though: at its core, the film is a drama.
The film is presented in a very naturalistic style with its cinematography, initially seeming somewhat uninspired. However, eventually the narrative reasons for this become apparent, as key sequences are later presented much more stylistically. Ultimately, this contrast in presentation endows the narrative with a greater sense of scope. This expands the film beyond simply extended sequences of dialogue (riveting though they may be).
Impressively, both Pryce and Hopkins are required to speak various languages to reflect their characters’ nationalities, as well as the use of Latin in the Vatican City. While a handful of instances seem obviously ADR-ed, this is so minor (and understandable) that it isn’t worth considering a criticism. The film’s only flaw is an instance when it risks being slightly overbearing with one of its messages simply due to the execution feeling somewhat forced and out of place. Still, this is a minor complaint, with very little runtime dedicated to it.
Overall, The Two Popes is a beautiful film that touches on universal themes of friendship and understanding. It also serves as a brilliant showcase for its leads, whose performances alone make the film worth seeing.
Image: Casa Rosada via Wikipedia