Dialogue and Dance: Seeking Understanding and Friendship in ‘The Two Popes’

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– By Matthew Sawczyn –

Adapted from the play The Pope by writer Anthony McCarten, Netflix’s awards season gem about an imagined meeting between Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis actually begins with a third pope: the deceased Pope John Paul II. The bells toll mournfully over St. Peter’s Square, as news of the pontiff’s passing quickly spreads. The spiritual head of the universal Catholic Church for twenty seven years, John Paul’s death causes waves across the globe, as over a billion faithful mourn, and the world watches with baited breath at the discernment of his successor. A thousand miles away, in the streets of Argentina, Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergogli is told of the Holy Father’s passing; he and over a hundred of his Cardinal brethren from the corners of the earth soon descend upon Rome to prayerfully decide on the Church’s next leader.

This is where The Two Popes begins, briskly portraying the first of two papal elections in the film. It is a process both spiritual and political, human and divine. Over meals and in marble corridors, the Cardinals discuss in whispered tones the future of the Catholic Church, and who best to take her there. As we know from history, Cardinal Ratzinger is eventually elected, taking the name Benedict XVI. Bergogli, disillusioned with the state of the Church, returns to his native Argentina, intent on retiring within a few years.

Fast forward almost a decade later, and Cardinal Bergoglio has booked a flight to Italy, to discuss the possibility of retirement with Pope Benedict. Mysteriously, a letter from the Pope arrives almost simultaneously, summoning Bergoglio to the papal residence in Castel Gandolfo. Is this Providence? What could the Holy Father want? What follows is a fictional debate between the two apostolic successors regarding Bergogli’s plea for retirement, cascading into deeper discussion of spirituality and the right approach to evangelization. Bergogli and Benedict, diametrically opposed in almost every way, stand in essentially as the two poles of the Church: liberal and conservative. Of course, as in all things, balance proves best, and the two very different men learn much from each other, as both seek the will of God concerning the people they’ve pledged to serve, and the Faith each holds dear.

Here actors Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, as Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict respectively, completely shine, embodying their roles almost perfectly. Their mannerisms, delivery, and outlook capture the essence of what makes each of these two men a unique gift to the Church.

Benedict, unsurprisingly, is written a bit more antagonistically than may be true; however, as the story progresses, we gain more and more sympathy for the head that wears the spiritual crown, as we see more and more of the man behind the perceived facade. We are briefly reminded of his friendship with the late Pope John Paul II, witness his almost boyish enthusiasm for music, and see an elderly man confront his quickening mortality.

Unabashed and outgoing, Bergogli rubs him as unorthodox and even dissentious; but perhaps, as his almost complete opposite, the right man to disclose a decision he has been pondering for a long time. The acclaimed actors carry the entire movie on their shoulders, and everyone is the better for it; don’t be surprised to see one or both names appear on an Oscars ballet come January.

What may surprise viewers is the liveliness this film holds. Energetic editing and a unique use of music bring what could have been a stuffy period piece into relevance, reminding the viewer that the Church is both ancient and timeless, storied and modern. Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, best known for his 2002 masterpiece City of God, deftly employs jazz, pop, and classic rock in places least expected, adding a nimbleness to the film he feared would otherwise stagnate into simply “two men talking.”

He needn’t have feared such a scenario, as the verbal dueling of Pryce and Hopkins proves fascinating and nuanced, with a healthy dose of humor and dramatic flashbacks to further enliven the story. McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour), is at his best with this adaptation of his own play; the dialogue is utterly superb, and fair to both parties. And the production value on the project is fittingly amazing, with stunning sets ranging from the streets of Argentina to the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

Yet at its core, the films remains grounded. It is not some hypothetical pitting of two theological theories, but the exploration of a very true friendship between two men; a human tale of dialogue, empathy, and mutual respect. The Two Popes is a movie for believers and non-believers alike. In the words of Fernando Meirelles, “I was a sort of an agnostic, but after this film, I have begun to believe that perhaps there is something.”

May every movie have such an impact on those who experience it.

The Two Popes is currently in theaters on limited release. It launches on Netflix December 20th.


About the Author

Matthew Sawczyn is a screenwriter in Los Angeles, and alumni of JPCatholic (MBA in Film Producing – Class of 2017). He loves hiking, HBO, and cuddly cats.

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