A two-hour-plus series of intense conversations between popes (!) Francis and Benedict (Johnathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, respectively), The Two Popes isn’t exactly meat-and-drink for a Netflix film. But director Fernando Meirelles also made the acclaimed 2002 religious film City of God, which entitles him to something of a blank check from the streaming company.
This isn’t quite City of God in terms of scale or spectacle – the drama is entirely internal, and generally on the faces of the leading actors – but it’s an impressive achievement nonetheless. Pryce and Hopkins are actors in the traditional sense, expressing the often-complex feelings of their diametrically opposed but extremely civil characters in movements of their eyes and faces. Hopkins’ performance is a physical one especially, playing the part of a quiet (now former) pope who wasn’t known for his rhetoric but rather a rigid loyalty to the old way of doing things. (Read into the casting of Hopkins whatever you want.)
Pryce as Francis, on the other hand, is the radical reformer at the heart of the campaign to modernise the Catholic Church in the wake of a banking scandal and more findings surrounding child abuse by members of the clergy – and the cover-ups by senior figures in the Vatican. Pryce’s performance is more verbal and almost by extension that of the protagonist, speaking in the grand language we have come to expect from Francis. Meirelles’s direction of the duo is smart, using his camera liberally to empower Hopkins’ eyes and Pryce’s eyebrows, the latter of which are usually raised in response to what Hopkins is saying.
And his Benedict is occasionally surprised by revelations in the life of Francis, too. A young Francis (played by Juan Minujín) delves deep into the ethics and life story of someone that many of us love but few of us know. It’s in these moments that the film takes the most risks but also has the biggest payoffs, resulting in sequences of real poignancy that begin to explain the wrinkles in those textured faces.
The Two Popes is not necessarily a jewel in the filmographies of both these actors, nor even the director — finding those in the cases of all three wouldn’t be difficult — but it’s eminently reliable work from all involved.