‘The Two Popes’ review: Two Thumbs Up

Maggie Adan
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THE TWO POPES. Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce play the role of two modern popes – Pope Benedict and Pope Francis. All photos from Netflix

Leave your expectations at the church door. Despite featuring not one but two popes, who spend most of the movie going head-to-head about religion, faith, sin, forgiveness, and the future of the Catholic Church, the film isn’t preachy or churchy at all. 

Instead, it explores the relationship between two diametrically opposed personalities—Pope Benedict XVI and Pope Francis—with a lot of heart and humor. (WATCH: ‘The Two Popes’ full trailer is here)

Inspired by the events surrounding Pope Benedict XVI’s election as the new leader of the Catholic Church up to his unexpected resignation, it takes us behind closed doors to show the pomp and circumstance surrounding the papacy, the politics at play during the Conclave, and more importantly, the conversations that could have taken place between Pope Benedict and his successor, Pope Francis, right before the former’s resignation.

Thanks to deft direction of Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and the superb screenplay by Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody), the banter between the two popes, which probe their polar opposite views on everything from celebrating mass in Latin to allowing the clergy to marry, is fraught with tension, full of humor, and sound entirely plausible. 

One particularly heated exchange between the two, set in the garden of the the Pope’s summer residence, was further heightened by the use of close-up shots that kept getting tighter and tighter, and clever sound editing that made use of chirping crickets that progressively got louder the more emotional the two main characters became.  

It is this interaction that is at the heart of the movie, and it is anchored by the powerful performances and chemistry of Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce: Hopkins is perfectly crotchety as traditionalist Pope Benedict and Pryce shines as the charismatic Pope Francis.

“You’re very popular,” Pope Benedict tells Pope Francis at one point.

“I just try to be myself,” Pope Frances replies.

“Whenever I try to be myself, people don’t seem to like me very much,” Pope Benedict shoots back. 

DIFFERENCES. 'The Two Popes' shows the difference of two men who eventually become leaders of the Catholic Church.

Much like the real life Pope Francis, it’s easy to fall in love with the movie version of him. He’s the ABBA to Pope Benedict’s classical piano music. And in one scene, a comparison of their shoes speaks more to a comparison between their personalities than their footwear preference.

Pope Francis is progressive and advocates for change: It may not be a bad idea for clergy to get married, he contends, especially when St. Peter himself was married (~GASP!~). And he’s shown to shun the excesses that come with being a pope. 

Add to that Meirelles admission in an article in Business World that he made the film because he’s a big fan of Pope Francis, and you can be forgiven for wondering if the movie is a little biased in favor of the Jesuit pope. Especially when we’re shown that Pope Benedict’s stand on a lot of the issues facing the world today is what you’d call an “unpopular opinion,” and his response to the scandals that rocked the Church during his term is painfully inadequate.

But just when you think the movie is Team Pope Francis all the way, it reveals the wisdom and humanity of Pope Benedict. For one, he may be square and conservative, but his dry sense of humor is endearing. And beneath that gruff exterior, there is sympathy that comes from his deep understanding of fallibility, especially his own. 

When the movie does a deep dive into Pope Francis’ past, and we find out what he and some perceive as his unfortunate role during Argentina’s martial law era—a source of great enough regret for him that it makes him feel unworthy of leading the Church—Pope Benedict very wisely tells him that our mistakes make us human. We, after all, are not God, he reminds Pope Francis.  

CLASHES. The movie shows how Benedict and Francis jive together despite some of their differences.

It must have taken great humility to look at his successor in the eye, someone he disagrees with on almost everything, and decide to relinquish his position to him because he knows Pope Francis is better suited for the job. 

And this is what makes the movie relevant. At a time when our differences have made us quick to judge and easy to anger, The Two Popes—the movie, and the people that inspired it—have shown us that we can disagree about even our most basic beliefs, and still leave enough room for understanding, and maybe even for friendship to grow.  – Rappler.com


Maggie Adan is a storyteller at heart. She is a freelance editor, writer, and content creator.

When she’s not stringing words together, she’s practicing yoga, doing crafts, puttering around in the kitchen, or providing free petting services to neighborhood dogs.

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