What a disappointment Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes turned out to be! The man behind the eternal classic City of God once seemed destined to join the ranks of Guillermo del Toro, Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón as the most exciting and innovative Hollywood filmmakers – all of whom happen to be Hispanic – working today. However, while his peers were producing some of the most original, mind-blowing features (see: The Shape of Water, The Revenant, Roma), Meirelles strangely abandoned the energetic, pseudo-Scorsesian style of his breakout feature in favor of a more classical approach. In other words, he started churning out prestige pictures: the overrated slog The Constant Gardner, the dreary flop Blindness, the even drearier 360. The filmmaker has been laying low since that last financial and critical disaster, his duties delegated to executive-producing the works of emerging young talent. So predictably, expectations were high for his first directorial effort in eight years. Unfortunately, The Two Popes is yet another unremarkable prestige picture, aimed squarely at academy voters.
“…film about, yes, two popes–one liberal, the other conservative–finding common ground despite vastly different perspectives…”
I believe it was Gene Siskel who used to say, “Is my film more interesting than a documentary of the same actors having lunch?” This one most definitely is not. Moreover, Meirelles – instead of trusting his two stalwart leads to anchor his film – resorts to numerous flashbacks and overt sermonizing (the latter makes sense, I guess, considering the film’s central subject). His film about, yes, two popes – one liberal, the other conservative – finding common ground despite vastly different perspectives, may be oh-so-timely, but it also moves at a supremely sluggish pace and is as dry as a prune. Ron Howard – of all filmmakers – achieved a similar kind of feat much more successfully with Frost/Nixon, pitting two great actors against each other for two intense hours. There’s nothing intense about The Two Popes. They talk and talk, and while the actors predictably shine, and there’s eloquence to be found in screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s dialogue, it just doesn’t amount to anything that resonates, that really seeps into your bones.
When Argentinian Cardinal Francis (Jonathan Pryce, mesmerizing as always) decides to retire, haunted by his days of leading the Argentine Church riots, he’s called over by Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins, perhaps the only actor alive with the gravitas to effortlessly embody this grand character), to try and change his mind. It’s revealed that Pope Benedict also plans to resign his post, and he expects the papal conclave to elect Francis as his successor. While their views are vastly dissimilar – subjects of child molestation, gay rights, and climate change are touched upon – the two Men of God strike an unlikely friendship. Unless you live under a rock, you know how this story ends.
“…the actors predictably shine, and there’s eloquence to be found in screenwriter Anthony McCarten’s dialogue…”
Large chunks of the film are dedicated to Francis sorrowfully recounting his revolt days to Benedict. Those sequences, featuring Argentinian actor Juan Minujin playing the young Francis, drag the film down so much, it’s almost like they belong in a different feature. Disregarding the fact that Minujin looks nothing like Pryce, from his physical appearance to the mannerisms, it’s a head-scratching choice to condense the film’s potentially epic scope – of feeling, of context – to this one admittedly heartbreaking fragment. The interactions between the elderly popes form the meat of this The Two Popes, and it could’ve used some seasoning. Everything certainly looks perfect, courtesy of Meirelles’ cinematographer César Charlone, who lovingly caresses each church icon with his lens, panning, and sliding and flying over the awe-inspiring architecture of the papal abode. The two actors are bound to be showered with awards, as is the production design, the polished script, etc. But there’s no intrigue, no real substance beneath all the gloss. May the spirit of adventure return to Meirelles with his next filmmaking endeavor. Amen.
The Two Popes screened at the 2019 AFI Fest.