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Netflix’s The Two Popes is best when its two acting legends pope it up

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We remain devout Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce believers

the two popes cheer for a football match on Tv Photo: Peter Mountain/Netflix

What do the two popes of Netflix’s new film The Two Popes have in common with Sherlock Holmes and a murderous robot doll? Great stars, and unfortunately, an inability to break free of source material that doesn’t matter all that much.

Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes and the recent Child’s Play reboot both surged towards brilliance as they found fresh takes on well-known material, then fell prey to sticking to the material. The same goes, roughly, for The Two Popes a docudrama directed by Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) about the passing of the torch from Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) to Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) in 2013. It’s impossible to talk about the Catholic Church without also talking about sexual abuse and financial misconduct, and though the topics are touched upon, they’re quickly glossed over. Meirelles isn’t interested in the history of the church so much as the push and pull between two seemingly incompatible men.

Benedict is resistant to change, while Francis believes it necessary. When the film begins — in 2005, during the papal conclave which elects Benedict — the men of the cloth cast uncertain looks at each other, as votes put Francis, then Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio of Argentina, in second place. In the bathroom, Benedict, then Joseph Ratzinger, asks Bergoglio what hymn he’s whistling. “Dancing Queen” is Bergoglio’s answer. Ratzinger looks bewildered. When, in 2013, Bergoglio is summoned to the papal summer residence to speak with Benedict — Bergoglio wishes to discuss his retirement, while Benedict wishes for Bergoglio to succeed him as pope — that relationship seems to remain unchanged.

Pope Benedict plays the piano as future Pope Francis listens Photo: Peter Mountain/Netflix

This odd couple dynamic becomes more affecting as the two men work through, or at least try to understand, their opposing stances, and the effect their chosen paths have had upon their faith. Bergoglio makes friends wherever he goes, stopping into pubs to watch soccer games and forgoing the cardinal’s uniform for less formal garb. Benedict’s gardener gifts Bergoglio with herbs when he leaves the summer residence, a gesture that Benedict’s surprise suggests he has never been offered, himself. Benedict’s faith and inflexibility have, by contrast, isolated him.

The film contains some real-world footage and often slips into documentary-like visuals — the colors look as natural as possible, and the camera sometimes shakes as if we were really following these two men around. That aesthetic humanizes these two titanic religious figures, though that must also be, in part, due to the fact that the conversations we see play out probably never happened. This dramatization, written by Anthony McCarten, in combination with quick-zooms, makes The Two Popes feel like Armando Iannucci (The Thick of It, Veep) taking on the Catholic Church.

Iannucci’s work manages to both lampoon and thoughtfully address British and American politics despite creating a cast of fictional characters, and The Two Popes is arguably weakest when it gets caught up in the real lives of its subjects. A healthy chunk of the film is devoted to telling Bergoglio’s life story, and while the flashbacks allow for Meirelles to try more flashy filmmaking techniques — black and white, as well as shifting aspect ratios — they also drag down the film’s momentum. Seeing these scenes play out feels redundant; Meirelles has two acting legends at his disposal, and Pryce hardly needs that kind of a narrative crutch.

the two popes whisper to each other on a bench Photo: Peter Mountain/Netflix

Still, it’s a delight spending time with Pryce and Hopkins as they spar over theology. Pryce is warm and empathetic, where Hopkins, while not cold, is rigid, attributing his lack of humor to his German heritage (“It’s a German joke, it doesn’t have to be funny,” he quips at one point), and coming off as sharp and absent-minded in turns. He hears what he wants to hear from Bergoglio, sometimes literally tuning him out — taking his headphones off in a helicopter — in order to block out what he doesn’t want to acknowledge.

A scene played over the credits imagines another scene, this time not of a rigorous debate but simply of the two men watching the World Cup. They cheer and drink together, and just have fun. It’s a moment that does away with their titles and their history, real and imagined. For once, they’re just two men, rather than two popes.

The Two Popes is streaming on Netflix now.