The world is so filled with knockabout absurdities nowadays that it’s easy to lose sight of the momentous circumstances that demand less immediate and constant attention. There are budding fascists to oppose and life-sustaining ecosystem roasting away due to criminal negligence of global leadership, so the wild circumstance of two different living popes kicking around this mortal plain is almost quaint, a mere curiosity instead of a wild historic aberration that speaks to the strangeness in a religious institution that seems perpetually on the verge of accidental self-immolation from a succession of scandals. Even before any specific contrasts between the two individuals are addressed, the simultaneous existence of a pope and an ex-pope is the stuff of mighty drama.
The Two Popes, the new film from director Fernando Meirelles, imagines the relationship between Joseph Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins), who served as Pope Benedict XVI, and Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who succeeded him as Pope Francis. The film gets into some of the ecumenical intrigue around the selection of new popes, exploring the daunting dynamics of a religion struggling to avoid being defined by horrific scandal. Mostly, it concerns itself with these two men from different places and with different mindsets engaged in conversation. The film is strongest when it skews this direction, almost turning into a modern My Dinner with Andre with a pair of creaking religious figures rather than intellectual New Yorkers.
Screenwriter Anthony McCarten doesn’t quite have the confidence to keep the film as a strict two-hander, though. Eventually, the conventions of standard biopics intrude, little by little. As the men share their views and experiences, The Two Popes becomes more clearly Jorge’s story, with significant portions of his history depicted in flashbacks. (Juan Minujín plays the future pope as a younger man.) What started at a sprightly crackle grows duller, mostly because Hopkins and Pryce are forced to cede the screen. Together, the veteran actors demonstrate the faultiness of the old adage about showing rather than telling. In their verbal jabbing at each other — and the slow-simmering mutual appreciation that develops — Hopkins and Pryce are far more evocative than the Argentinian landscapes and posh Catholic decor captured by Meirelles and cinematographer César Charlone.
Despite the stumbles, The Two Popes is often engaging. The film finds gentle humor in the strained attempts by the central figures to bond, and it warmly observes the clumsiness of highly spiritual men operating in a modern culture they don’t fully grasp. Meirelles and his collaborators probably don’t proffer anything all that unique or insightful about the Catholic faith, but their kind attention to the common contours of human nature has value. Under the fussy adornments, we are all merely people trying our best to get by. That’s even true of popes, plural.