From the late 1960s until 2000, New York magazine ran a regular wordplay competition, overseen by the gifted wordsmith Mary Ann Madden, inviting readers to submit, say, advertising jingles for products no one needs or greeting-card verses for under-recognized occasions. Of the latter, one of the most memorable was “Saw your smoke, now you’re Pope, congrats!” But seriously: If one of your pals should ever become the recipient of this most blessed honor, how would you know what to put in the email subject line?
The inner workings of the Catholic Church, as carried out behind the scenes at that brocade-and-velvet-festooned fortress known as the Vatican, are largely kept secret from mere mortals. Fernando Meirelles’ bright and briskly moving The Two Popes—a semi-fictionalized account of how the current Pope Francis ended up taking the papal reins from Pope Benedict XVI in 2013—helps demystify some of the murky goings-on at this centuries-old institution, or at least draws the weighty curtain back slightly. It addresses, with perhaps a bit too much politeness, the sex-abuse scandals that have only recently begun to rattle the foundations of the church, considering that these problems have been an open secret for years. Mostly, though, it’s an enjoyable portrait of a prickly friendship between two men of vastly different temperaments, one a staunch traditionalist who enjoys all the benefits of his station (including those snazzy red leather slip-ons handmade by a specially appointed papal shoemaker), the other a luxury-eschewing Jesuit who feels it’s long past time for the church to reform.
Early on, just to give us an idea of the contrast between these two men of faith, The Two Popes dramatizes an encounter between them—probably fictional, alas—in a communal bathroom at the Vatican, circa 2005, as they take a break from the monumental task that has brought them, as then-cardinals, to Rome: Electing a new pope after the death of John Paul II. As they rinse their hands at side-by-side sinks, the soon-to-be Pope Benedict, Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), makes a stiff but polite inquiry, in Latin, about the “hymn” the other has been humming as he’s lathering up. Cardinal Bergoglio, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), jauntily tells him that the tune is actually ABBA’s “Dancing Queen,” which could be considered a hymn depending on your reverence toward ‘70s Swedish pop, but which, in the context Ratzinger means, is purely secular.
That early encounter, and Bergoglio’s casual exchanges with the other assembled cardinals during the pope-voting hootenanny, speaks volumes about the type of man he is. He’s uncomfortable with the Vatican’s glamorous robes and rituals—he feels more at home among his flock, in his birthplace of Buenos Aires. He’s also distressed by the church’s refusal to change with the times. Meanwhile, Ratzinger—a straight-arrow German-born theologian who laments the fact that most of his church brethren no longer speak Latin—is one of those guys who actually wants to be pope. Once Ratzinger has been elected, Bergoglio hightails it back to Argentina and never looks back. Or at least he thinks that’s how it’s going to be.
The dramatic core of The Two Popes is its depiction of a meeting between the two men, initiated by Benedict, at the papal country house in the Italian countryside. Bergoglio has been hoping to retire, and he thinks this will be the perfect opportunity to drop the news on his boss. But Benedict has something else in mind: Trouble has been brewing at the Vatican, in the form of scandals pointing to financial corruption. The problem of sex abuse in the church isn’t going away either, and even if that were the case, the institution is still haunted by its track record of failing to punish pedophile priests. Benedict is beleaguered and exhausted, and he’s nurturing a secret plan to resign, which no pope has done since the 15th century. He needs to find a suitable replacement candidate, and even though Bergoglio’s views differ sharply from his own, Benedict thinks he’s just the man for the job.
Meirelles (director of the 2002 City of God) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (whose credits include Darkest Hour and The Theory of Everything) gracefully track the terrain of this strange and sometimes strained encounter, giving these two seasoned actors room to breathe. Hopkins, cast in the rather thankless role of being the uptight hard-liner, brushes his performance with glimmers of humanity. You feel some sympathy for the man so locked into the rulebook that he can’t see that people, not rules, are the church’s lifeblood. Pryce has the easier job of playing the affable, football-loving, old-shoe-wearing Francis, and it’s probably impossible not to like him. The movie addresses some dark patches in Francis’ past, notably his tacit alignment, in the 1970s, with Argentina’s military dictatorship, and Pryce folds shadows of that burden into his performance: Francis is generally a jovial-looking guy, but the faint furrowing of his brow, when he thinks no one’s looking, suggests that he has to live with a past he can’t erase.
We all know the church is a repository of spiritual riches, but it’s no slouch in the glitz department, either. The papal coffers haven’t financed all manner of decorative, celebratory finery—paintings, golden vessels, pure white vestments just begging to be adorned with heavily jeweled crosses—for nothing, and the The Two Popes doesn’t disappoint when it comes to depicting, say, the hushed grandeur of the Sistine Chapel. (Though Meirelles was not allowed to shoot inside the actual chapel, the re-creation—built on a set at Rome’s Cinecittà Studios—is pretty dazzling.) In the movie’s most telling moment, Bergoglio has just been named pope and is being hustled into the super-special pristine-white pope uniform. Just as he’s about to greet the world from the balcony, he’s stopped by a servant. His ensemble is not yet complete. He’s offered a selection of massive, stone-encrusted cross necklaces, each the size of a Flavor Flav clock, the final accouterment necessary to achieve proper levels of papal pizazz. Bergoglio, now Pope Francis, waves the crosses away; he prefers to wear the simple silver one he arrived with. He and the retired Benedict will continue to be friends, as real-life footage tucked at the end of The Two Popes shows us. But you can’t help feeling that the one with the simpler taste in accessories is the right guy for a very tough job. As Coco Chanel said, before you leave the house, look in the mirror and remove one piece of jewelry. If that means you’re left with only one item, make sure it counts.