The Netflix Highlight: “The Two Popes”
What’s up: Netflix’s “The Two Popes” is a historical drama about two popes in conversation. Although the movie jumps between different years, the bulk of the movie focuses on the relationship between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) before Francis took that role.
The pairing of these two men has an inherent tension as Benedict holds conservative beliefs while the future Pope Francis is far more liberal. The long hangouts between the two come across as debates, as the two popes discuss the future of the Catholic Church and the meaning of life.
To add some life to these heady topics, the movie also focuses heavily on their varying interests and personalities. While Benedict is a studious bore, Francis likes to tango and watch soccer. Much of the movie establishes Francis as a man of the people and the right person to lead the church in this era.
The movie begins with Pryce as Francis trying to book a flight from Rome on the phone. He listens to robotic options and eventually gets a live operator. “I know I can book it on the internet, but I’ve only just moved here,” Francis says. After some discussion, he says his name and the operator responds, “Like the pope?” The operator asks for the postal code. “I’m not sure, Vatican City,” Francis responds. “Very funny,” the operator responds and hangs up the call, thinking this was a practical joke.
“The Two Popes” runs 2 hours, 5 minutes.
Sum-up: The movie has already earned four prominent Golden Globe nominations: Best Motion Picture ― Drama, Best Actor in Drama (Pryce), Best Supporting Role (Hopkins) and Best Screenplay. The movie will likely earn Academy Award nominations as well.
“The Two Popes” excels at showing a glimpse at the splendor of what happens behind the walls of the Vatican. Much like the Netflix show “The Crown,” most shots have palatial riches as the setting, which elevates the plot with a sense of importance.
These settings particularly help the script, as this is essentially a collection of loosely connected scenes based around conversations. Moments of action are few and far between and flashbacks abound. This means the story lacks propulsion. But thankfully, the conversational scenes are well executed. Watching two characters at the top of the spiritual world discuss the nature of good and evil is fascinating, but Hopkins and Pryce also rise to the weight of the conversation with considered performances.
The movie can feel a bit like homework at times, particularly when it uses real footage of historical events to explain background information versus recreating those scenes. But “The Two Popes” has enough whimsy, humor and mastery to make the scenes worth watching nevertheless.
Heads up: While the movie does address the various ills that plagued the Catholic Church and specifically Pope Benedict’s reign, the movie presents Pope Francis as a force of pure good. While the contrast between Benedict and Francis is stark, only presenting one of the popes as cosmically fallible makes this a weaker narrative than it could have been. The human fallibility of a role that’s supposed to be infallible is an interesting topic, and focusing the narrative on the church needing to simply sweep away the old to bring in a perfect new minimizes this tension.
Close-up: Early on in the movie, the two future popes share a scene in a bathroom at the Vatican. They have convened there in their roles as cardinals to select a new pope after the death of Pope John Paul II. To establish the stark differences of closed-wall conservatism and open-gate progressivism, the movie has the future Pope Francis joyfully whistle “Dancing Queen” by ABBA while washing his hands. The future Pope Benedict approaches (with a disapproving face) to wash his hands. Both cardinals wear full regalia, such as gold crosses and red zucchetto hats. In Latin, the future Benedict asks, “What’s the hymn you are whistling?”
Later in the movie, it’s established that the future Pope Francis doesn’t like speaking in Latin because he wasn’t a great student. He responds to the question though, and the future Pope Benedict looks angry at the answer. In disapproval, the future Benedict throws away a paper towel and switches to English, sarcastically saying, “That’s good. ABBA.” Abba is, of course, often used as a synonym for Father or God. Although very on the nose, this moment is a fun way to establish the stark differences between these two men.
History: When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, he became the first pope to do so in almost 600 years. A BBC report suggested the resignation came from a combination of scandals in the Vatican along with Benedict failing to maintain power with ambitious members of the church’s civil service. Of course, it also had to do with the child sexual abuse scandals in the Catholic Church and subsequent cover-ups. Earlier this year, Benedict broke his silence about the abuse, blaming it on Catholic leaders who got too lenient with traditional moral teachings and allowed for more sexual acceptance.
“It could be said,” Benedict wrote, “that in the 20 years from 1960 to 1980, the previously normative standards regarding sexuality collapsed entirely.”
Comparable Stories: HBO’s “The Young Pope” offers a similar glimpse behind the scenes of the contemporary papacy. That show has a heightened, ridiculous narrative, while “The Two Popes” languishes in calm conversations. In a way, this has much in common with the genre of odd-pairing buddy comedies such as “The Odd Couple.” It certainly doesn’t have the big laughs of a comedy, but borrows heavily from the premise of setting two opposite people in close quarters and mining jokes from their differences.
The Characters And Money: Both characters have literally godlike wealth while ruling the church. But the difference between the two popes’ economic understanding of the world drives the main tension in the movie. While Benedict has a conservative background and ultimately turns a blind eye to corruption involving the Vatican Bank, Francis focuses on liberal policies and solving global inequality.
Bonus: Netflix released a brief interview with Hopkins about his acting process to promote the movie. The conversation goes past platitudes and gets at concrete things Hopkins does in preparing for a role.
“The Two Popes” Trailer:
A Couple Of Netflix News Stories From This Week
1. A report by Variety concluded that Netflix released 371 new shows and movies on the service in the United States over the course of 2019. That’s a 50% increase from 2018. As someone who covered what joined the service each week, I can certainly attest to the service debuting so much content.
2. I found a couple of announcements particularly interesting: Will Ferrell will star in a Netflix adaptation of the Netflix documentary “The Legend of Cocaine Island,” and Netflix finally renewed “Special” for a second season.
And here are the shows and movies that joined Netflix this week:
- “A Family Man”
- “Dil Dhadakne Do”
- “Karthik Calling Karthik”
- “The Danish Girl”
- “The Magicians” (Season 4)
- “Ronny Chieng: Asian Comedian Destroys America!” (Netflix Original)
- “Don’t F**k With Cats: Hunting an Internet Killer” (Netflix Documentary)
- “Soundtrack” (Netflix Original)
- “After the Raid” (Netflix Documentary)
- “Ultraviolet” (Season 2, Netflix Original)
- “Twice Upon a Time” (Netflix Original)
- “The Two Popes” (Netflix Film)
- “The Witcher” (Netflix Original)