Director: Fernando Meirelles
Released by: Netflix
Release Date: Nov.2019
Running time: 125mins
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Johnathan Pryce
The obvious questions will be; Is it going to be another character-driven focus on the veracity of faith? Will it be a solitary drone about someone losing it? Is it about a dying clergy? After all, we have quite a few of those. Most importantly is this going to be something else?
The Two Popes is thankfully, a lot more than the sum of its parts. Based on the screenplay by Anthony McCarten; The Pope. The New Zealand author is responsible for many biopics, such as The Theory of Everything (2014), The Darkest Hour (2017), and Bohemian Rhapsody (2018), which is a list that would be all over the ratings chart if reviewed here. So where would this latest entry end up on that scale? The Two Popes would score high.
As said, it has depths. Looking from a simplistic stance, one could think of a Samuel Beckett style existentialist piece. After all, what better subjects to bring Beckett's wonderful style to the millennial audience than two supreme pontiffs? In fact, I would wager money on that being the title if the great man were still alive, and if his plays were not proven to be terrible when transferred to film.
So what about a more accessible comparison? Think maybe of Philomena, or the perfect Withnail and I? Maybe even a Vatican answer to The Breakfast Club?. Regretfully, from a critics standpoint, and thankfully from a studio (and audience) standpoint, it is not like this at all. It is not trying to prove it is entertaining enough with just two main characters. Subsequently It does not suffer from the empty palette a production trying to do this would .
So what does it have? A super opening. It has the typical hue and haze that you seem to get in external shots with Netflix productions. You are smoothly transported between Vatican City and Argentinian barrios as we see out the demise of John Paul II's lengthy papacy. There is pleasant, very smooth exposition and character development. You quickly but un-jaggedly learn the traits of the two main players. Anthony Hopkins as the German Ratzinger and Johnathan Pryce as Argentinian Bergoglio (both names used are non-papal). Most will know of the rumors that immediately surfaced regarding the former and his youthful political leanings and allegiances during his country's troubled time. Also, we quickly see that we are required in the beginning, to see Johnathan Pryce as the more sympathetic character.
This is a highly enjoyable opening; aforementioned exposition, pleasing imagery, and the eye-catching portrayal of the selecting a new Pope. This shows us more character traits of the two main players. We see the political kinks in the house of the papacy and inevitable hypocrisies between Catholic dogma and the politics and economics that will erupt through any organisation that has over a billion members. An inevitability regardless of the morals and well-meaning ideologies it began with, and especially in one as divisive and scandal-soaked as this one. Seeing the eye of a needle close up, and a very respectful montage of the election unfolding you could not guess the winner. To any ignorant of the winner at this choosing, it is done very shrewdly.
At this short stage, you are engaged, there is such a constancy of revelation and upkeep of interest that you are wrapped. However, often, in this case, you can find yourself, at around 45 minutes in suddenly realising your interest is waning and so is the story, so I was on my guard.
Sir Anthony plays a role that reminds me of his turn as media giant Bill Parrish in the overly-sentimental Meet Joe Black (1998). His delivery and speech came over in a very similar edge. There is a scene in which Johnathan Pryce glances at him and has his glance met with a swift meeting of eyes. Very reminiscent of the opera scene in Hannibal, which was last movie I saw with AH set in the Italian landmass.
Also, it is close to being a cliche trap, after all, it is about two powerful men in the same world. Was it going to be about one good and one bad? Yes, a bit, but not a cliche. After all, if it were a cliche you could guarantee one would smoke.
There are imperfections, the approach to an obvious future fondness is a bit clumsy. Though that is the moulding rather than the dialogue. The dialogue is superb. The garden scene (although the friendly gardener gift is a bit twee and short-sighted, but still understandable) The snappy philosophical back-and-forth peppered with humor and personal vitriol is enough to drown any little bumps in the road.
Aesthetically proficient. Both visual and audiological. There is such wonderful scenery. There are many close-ups, a necessary ingredient although obvious. It feels a bit shaky-cam without being so. The lack of a background score in many scenes is a total triumph, it increases tension and creates a settinng that is environmentally inclusive for the viewer.
Some of the shots have a feel of a professional photographers' holiday snaps. Maybe a vagrant against a shockingly bright blue wall in pouring sunshine. It has that verve and it is absolutely a good thing. Scenery work gets an solid A+. The brave editing by Fernando Stutz and camera focus work is disturbingly glorious and almost anachronistic, given its subject matter, and this paradox is a gamble. For this reviewer, it pays off.
So what about the 45-minute lull? Honestly, yes, it appeared. It soon disappeared though. After a humourous meeting over a silly TV show with a dog, the incumbent pope avoiding a document which is the source of the entire meeting, the Holy Father is called to the Vatican from his country home. The following mention of the financial scandal involving his aide, posts another allegory to another Italian set movie, The Godfather III (1991) set in the times of the papal banking scandal of the early eighties, and of course, there are mentions of ubiquitous sex-scandals. This is too big a subject to soundbite, so I will not insult it by attempting.
Then we spend some time in the Sistine Chapel. There we are treated to Jean-Clement Sorets beautiful colorist work and it is a treat.
The informative and excellent exposition continues on the focus of Johnathan Pryce. It is at times loving, humourous, and nostalgic. It continues to the brutal history of his home country, the Chile-Argentina border building, the persecution and censorship experienced under the Junta. It is cleverly heartbreaking and it does so with much less graphic provenance than many other pictures. This is no way makes it less vivid or effective. It is spectacular and makes the movie remain a consistent triumph. It is absolutely tempered to a magnificent professional standard and the aforementioned editor Senor Stutz continues to wow.
There were a few laboured moments, long goodbyes, stretched everyman conversations with the staff, and a scene where they say goodbye and a quick dance, is too many goodbyes for one scene. Realistic but not screen-friendly. This is a minor, scoreless quip and not a detraction from anything of merit.
The cinematography of Cesar Charlone is the most impressive in that sector that I have seen in this past year or recent memory. It made the film into a treat for me. It gave it a similar feel to Baz Luhrmann's 1996 screen telling of Romeo + Juliet a production that was not exactly short of Christian imagery and was also set in the Italian realm.
It is worth highlighting the rich and involving colour in the scenery and subject. A fair warning is a scene with bottles of pop and pizza is so inviting you will get hungry from the brightness alone. A fitting metaphor to the overall appeal of this movie. It invites and makes you glad you stayed
Photos from Variety and IMDB