When Pope John Paul II died, a conclave of the world’s cardinals assembled in the Vatican in order to elect their new leader. A cardinal needs 77 votes to win; votes that fail to achieve that number are burned and black smoke signals to the throngs of believers outside that another round of voting will be necessary. After two such failures, the guy who wants it the most, Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) makes the rounds, glad-handing and kissing babies. Just kidding. The process IS crazy political and Ratzinger is the consummate candidate, but priests are still celibate last I checked and besides, babies would wreak havoc on those all those white robes. Ratzinger wins in the third round, becoming Pope Benedict XVI, sending up a puff of white smoke to cheers outside.
But Ratzinger’s papacy is mired by conflict from the start. You may have heard some of catholicism’s myriad scandals – the whole priests molesting altar boys and all that. Plus his own personal secretary is arrested, and his correspondence leaked. But most of all, he’s haunted by the runner-up for pope, an Argentinian named Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who seems to be effortlessly popular. Bergoglio didn’t even want the job and didn’t campaign for it, yet he still almost won, which drives the ambitious but unlikable Ratzinger crazy.
The bulk of the film is about a secret meeting between the two when Ratzinger begins to realize that though Bergoglio is much too progressive for his taste, he is perhaps what the church needs right now. They’re not enemies, because brothers in god can’t be, but they are opposites. They discuss theology, dogma, belief, but they’re also just a couple of grumpy old men, struggling to fit in in a world that seems to want them less and less. Ratzinger is a Fanta-Formula 1-Fitbit kind of pope, touches that humanize a man who seems otherwise apart from, and perhaps above, humanity. Bergoglio is a football and tango kind of cardinal. If two of the highest-ranking catholic priests can’t find common ground, what hope have we for the rest of us?
The film opens closed doors in Vatican City and offers brilliant behind the scenes insight. It makes you wonder about things you’ve never stopped to think about before. But it’s put together in a fun and very watchable way. If you never thought about the natural pairing of a somber religious occasion and Abba, then please allow director Fernando Meirelles to expand your horizons.
Hopkins and Pryce play off each other with such dynamism even their silly pope clothes fall away, leaving just two men, more fallible and more human than we’re usually allowed to consider them, telling each other their sins, secrets and regrets. The audience is their confessor, without being asked to judge, or forgive.
The Two Popes is thought-provoking but more importantly, and somewhat surprisingly, delightfully funny and entertaining.