Michael Hayward's Blog

Review: "The Two Popes"

Michael Hayward

In Seasons 5 and 6 of Game of Thrones, Jonathan Pryce plays the High Sparrow, head of an ascetic religious sect, who ultimately rises to a position of great power, holding the fate of the Lannisters in his hands. A simple man, the High Sparrow wanders beneath the vaulted ceiling of the Great Sept wearing a floor-length, loosely woven robe of rough brown sackcloth. Evidently Pryce insisted upon a better tailor when he agreed to play Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, later Pope Francis, head of yet another obscure religious organization, in the film The Two Popes, directed by the Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles (City of God etc). Pryce’s papal regalia is significantly more stylish than the High Sparrow’s robes, trading brown sack cloth for a pure white, bespoke cassock with matching pellegrina and with white fringed fascia, pectoral cross, and white zucchetto (terms for which I thank the Wikipedia article on papal regalia).

The Two Popes is based on a stage play, The Pope, which may explain its slightly claustrophobic, dialogue-heavy format. Most of the two-hours of screen action takes place behind closed doors, as Pryce goes head to head in long discussions with his boss, Pope Benedict XVI, played by Sir Anthony Hopkins. If you were expecting David Mamet-esque expletives, or the sardonic back-and-forth of, say, Loki and Thor in Thor: Ragnarok, well, think again: there’s not a four-letter word to be heard, and the dialogue is completely irony-free. Instead (and unusually for a contemporary feature film) we find ourselves eavesdropping on extended debates covering various hot button theological issues of the day, most of which—fortunately, for purposes of dramatic tension—the two principals disagree on: the celibacy of the priesthood; angels; the role of women in the church; the importance of staying true to two thousand years of tradition, vs the necessity of the church changing with changing times. The central question, though, which the two characters circle around for much of the film, is that of retirement and succession: it is no spoiler to remind readers that Pope Benedict XVI (the Hopkins character) renounced the papacy in 2013, the first time this had occurred in six centuries, and that Pope Francis (the Pryce character) was his eventual successor.

Once again British actors (ok: Welsh) prove themselves to be the chameleons of the dramatic arts, capable of playing characters of almost any nationality and native language. Sir Anthony Hopkins plays the Pope formerly known as Joseph Ratzinger (a German-speaker, though his preferred language is Latin). Jonathan Pryce plays the Spanish-speaking Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio. Conveniently for the film—and for the decision to cast English speaking actors for these parts—English proves to be their common language, which allows us to follow along. There’s a clever scrap of dialogue near the end of the film, when the two protagonists are about make their farewells, Pope Benedict XVI heading back to his duties in Rome, Cardinal Bergoglio preparing to fly back to Argentina. “I’m so tired of speaking English,” says Bergoglio to Il Papa. “There are so many rules, and so many exceptions to the rules.” A little inside joke amongst fellow graduates of the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London.

Hopkins and Pryce do everything that is expected of them as thespians; their costumes and regalia are sumptuous, fabulously detailed, and undoubtedly authentic; and the filming locations are breathtaking (after seeing a shot of Castel Gandolfo, the Pope’s summer residence, from the air, can anyone blame Pope Benedict XVI for wanting to renounce the papacy and retire there?) Despite these strengths, The Two Popes still drags, and at times feels like a two hour promotional video funded by apologists for the Catholic church, a chance to publicly admit to recent failings (sexual abuse by Catholic priests gets a passing reference) while presenting the current Pope in a very flattering light: a simple man, humble and unpretentious, as well as a church reformer; in short: the best thing to happen to the Catholic church since, well, since Pope John Paul II.

Think of The Two Popes as an attempt to do for the papacy what The Crown has done, accidentally or deliberately, for the British royal family: humanize an institution that is desperately in need of an image makeover. At times these efforts to humanize the papacy go a bit too far: personally, I could have done without the scene showing the two pontiffs eating street pizza and Fanta, as well as the one showing them cheering for their respective national teams in the 2014 World Cup final, watching the game on a large-screen TV in a lavishly-appointed apartment tucked away somewhere deep inside the Vatican (Germany beats Argentina 1-0).

The Two Popes will be playing at VIFF’s Vancity Theatre for two weeks starting on Friday, December 13th. See this link for more information on the film, and to purchase tickets.



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