Friday, December 20, 2019

Mereilles’ The Two Popes, on Netflix

Pope Benedict XVI listens to Thelonious Monk. Pope Francis listens to ABBA. That alone pretty well tips the scales in Benedict’s favor. They might have booth spoken for God, but they are still mortal men. Yet, despite their political-theological differences they find they faith still unites them in Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, which premieres today on Netflix.

Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis, had no desire to be pontiff, but he found himself the chief runner-up when Pope Benedict was elected by the Vatican conclave. Disillusioned by the new Pope’s theological conservatism, Cardinal Bergoglio returns to Argentina and considers resigning from the College of Cardinals.

Just when Bergoglio petitions Pope Benedict to allow his resignation, the Pope summons him to Rome. The Holy See has been rocked by the Vatican bank scandal and Benedict’s health is in decline, but not his mind. Both men are at a crossroads, but they will have to have their doctrinal debates before they can get to the really profound truths regarding the Church and themselves.

In many ways, The Two Popes is a surprisingly humanistic portrait of two men who both served in one of the most influential positions on Earth. Although it is glaringly obvious Meirelles and screenwriter Anthony McCarton are more sympathetic to the liberalism of Francis, they still treat Benedict with a good deal of respect. Arguably, the film humanizes both Popes to a great extent.

Regardless, what makes the film is the remarkable casting. Both Sir Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are absolute dead-ringers for Benedict and Francis, respectively. Of course, they both also happen to be very fine actors, but Hopkins finds more humor in his portrayal of the German Pope—and thereby creates an even more complex and human portrait.

There is much to admire about both Popes, but Francis has thus far gotten much better press. Nevertheless, the brutal police attacks on Hong Kong’s young democracy protestors and the horrific network of concentration camps for the Uyghurs in East Turkestan now must color our reaction to this film. So far, Pope Francis has been conspicuously silent regarding the CCP wholesale violation of human rights. Much of the Two Popes focuses on the guilt he feels for not doing more to protest Argentina’s military junta. Given the video of rampaging HK police we see every day on Twitter and the revelations of the Xinjiang Papers, we’ve reached that point again with China. If Francis does not speak out soon, he will repeat his past mistakes, at least as Meirelles’ film portrays them.

Seriously, this is a legitimate concern, albeit through no fault of Meirelles, McCarten, or the two accomplished co-leads. Hopkins and Pryce are great fun to watch playing off each other. Arguably, this could just as easily be a stage play, because their scenes together are the ones that really work. Still, Meirelles manages to helm with a bit of pizzazz and the soundtrack of instrumental pop and jazz is quite snappy. Recommended as the Papal dramedy Neil Simon never wrote, The Two Popes starts streaming today on Netflix.