Friday 20 December 2019

On demand: "The Two Popes"

The Two Popes is what you might call a papal indulgence. Netflix have paired the Brazilian stylist Fernando Meirelles (City of God, Blindness) with a talky script by the emergent British writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, Bohemian Rhapsody) about a series of meetings that took place at the start of this decade between the then-Pope Benedict (played here by Anthony Hopkins) and Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), soon to become Pope Francis, about the challenges facing the Catholic Church in the first years of the 21st century. Though it develops late on, the initial set-up is every bit that of the sitcom the title promises. After blanking one another at the 2005 election that followed John-Paul II's death, Benedict calls Bergoglio to his Castel Gandolfo summerhouse to consider the path the Church should now take. There, they swap the clerical equivalent of war stories, and we watch two different personalities meeting somewhere in the middle: Benedict a crusty old puffin who has no clue what "Yellow Submarine" is and maintains "change is compromise", Bergoglio the worldly, forgiving moderniser, oblivious to the fact he's being sized up to fill the outgoing pontiff's shoes. That might seem an extraordinary situation, but right from the off, McCarten's editorial line is a jolly "Popes! They're just like us!" Bergoglio is introduced struggling to navigate telephone booking systems and hotel WiFi, and rushes back from these confabs to watch the football; Benedict has a Fitbit-style device that tells him when to get up and stay active. That's quite a nifty device for both bearer and movie, it turns out, in that it prevents any given scene from becoming too static.

You may wonder whether Meirelles himself was wearing something similar during production, given the antsiness of the film set before us. The Two Popes is by some distance the most eccentrically shot of this year's likely awards contenders, a ragbag of wobbly, hand-held close-ups, cutaways to details in paintings, and monochrome flashbacks that establish Bergoglio as something of a romantic figure (drawn into the priesthood after parting from the woman he loved) and exactly the right man for the job. (As in his retelling of the Stephen Hawking story, McCarten is interested in the getting of wisdom; it's just that Meirelles, working for a streaming giant, now has the resources to unscroll that process over the full width of the screen.) All this makes for livelier viewing than one might perhaps expect from an unpacking of Catholic dogma, yet much of it is still talk, and much of that talk is marked by evasion or deflection, a reluctance to address what these men should have been talking about. That circumlocution is, granted, pretty expert, and one derives a certain pleasure from watching two fine actors guiding us up the garden path and round the spiritual houses: Hopkins giving good distracted bluster, a typically precise Pryce countering with wry, self-effacing banter. Yet The Two Popes struck me as emerging from the same cosy corner as Wim Wenders' recent Pope Francis doc, keen as it is to reframe Catholicism as something reassuring and self-regulating. (It's a celebration of the Church's ability to keep its crises in-house.) There's money in such reassurance, as has been proven by the growth of the faith-based movie, and the Meirelles name presumably allows Netflix to better target The Two Popes at the flourishing Latin American market. I'm just not sure those who bore witness in Alex Gibney's expose Mea Maxima Culpa or the characters in Ozon's recent By the Grace of God would entirely agree with the thesis.

The Two Popes is now playing in selected cinemas, and streaming via Netflix. 

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