BFI LFF 2019: The Two Popes (2019)

The Two Popes by Fernando Mereilles is a sparklingly written, joyfully acted, behind-the-scenes imagining of historic events made personal that has its international premiere at the BFI London Film Festival.

Holy Fathers

by Alexa Dalby

The Two Popes

CAUTION: Here be spoilers

The Two Popes is inspired by two events in 2012, that’s seen as one of the most dramatic transitions of religious power in the last 2,000 years.

Frustrated with the direction of the Catholic church, popular Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) writes to request permission to retire from the newly appointed Pope Benedict XVI (the German Joseph Aloisius Ratzinger, played by Anthony Hopkins). Instead, facing scandal and self-doubt, the introspective Pope Benedict summons his harshest critic and future successor to Rome for discussion. He has plans of his own, which he needs to divulge to Bergoglio.

Behind Vatican walls, in the tranquil gardens of Castel Gandolfo, in the Pope’s private quarters and in the Sistine Chapel, a struggle commences between tradition and progress, guilt and forgiveness, as these two very different men confront their pasts in order to find common ground and forge a future for the billion followers of the Catholic Church around the world.

There are fascinating behind-the-scenes glimpses of the internal workings of the Vatican. Flashbacks show Bergoglio’s past in Argentina, how he found his calling, his penance for past weakness when he was head of the Jesuits in Argentina and his ability to communicate humbly with ordinary people wherever he goes. In contrast, the child-abuse scandals that surrounded the Church are skated over, although they are a factor in the realisation that Pope Benedict comes to in summoning Bergoglio – he realises he is not the person to deal with them.

Terrific writing from Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody, Darkest Hour) showcases the chemistry between Hopkins and Pryce, whose wonderful performances relish the rich dialogue that crackles with humour.

Director Fernando Mereilles depicts – with rich textures – compassion, self-doubt, shame and pride as the intimate debate between these two powerful old men progresses.

And whatever your stakes in religion, Pryce and Hopkins are a joy to watch together on screen. It’s a must-see.

The Two Popes had its international premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, screening on 7, 8 and 9 October 2019. It is released on 29 November 2019 in the UK and on Netflix on 20 December 2019.

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