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“The Two Popes” Is Shockingly Entertaining, As Well As Moving

Of all the films I’ve seen in 2019, none has emerged as quite the pleasant surprise that The Two Popes has. On the surface, nothing about this project interested me. I’m not religious, I don’t especially see religious figures as compelling characters, and so one. Yet, here we are with this movie representing one of the most enjoyable character studies of the year. With a pair of excellent performances, sumptuous writing, and an open hearted way of tackling faith, it turns out to be a huge success. Netflix has a real embarrassment of riches this year, and it’s to their credit that this one isn’t being lost in the shuffle.

The film is a character study, mixing some light comedy with some potent dramatic elements. The focus is on a crisis in the Catholic Church and two dramatic transitions of power. First, there’s the election of Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins), continuing the faith’s conservative orthodoxy. Years later, in 2012, a frustrated Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) heads to the Vatican in order request permission to retire from Benedict. The latter sees it as a protest, which is partly true, as the former takes issue with the direction of the Church. Thus begins a debate between the old school and the new school. However, with doubt and scandal swirling about, Benedict sees in Bergoglio an eventual successor. During a long conversation, he reveals secrets and makes a request that will change Catholicism forever. As both talk about their personal guilt, failings, and desire for forgiveness, the initial debate between whether progress is necessary evolves into the start of an unlikely friendship, one that would continue as Bergoglio eventually becomes Pope Francis. Fernando Meirelles directs a script by Anthony McCarten. Juan Minujín rounds out the cast, with the score by Bryce Dessner, as well as César Charlone handling cinematography.

It may come as a shock, but, as mentioned above, this is largely one of the funnier movies of the year. McCarten peppers in a ton of laughs here, especially during some of the initial interactions between Hopkins’ current Pope and Pryce’s future Pope. Things get much more serious in the middle and towards the end, before doubling back to wrap up on some very humorous moments. That’s a big part of what elevates the film from good to great. The heart, humor, and universality of the story takes what otherwise could have been an academic discussion of faith or theology and makes it tale of simple moral struggles.

Jonathan Pryce is stunning here. His work as Pope Francis is supremely human and touching. It’s easily one of the most noteworthy performances of the year. Hopkins is excellent as well, playing Pope Benedict, but Pryce is phenomenal. The way he mixes heart and humor is the perfect summation of what McCartern and Meirelles are going for with their work. The character himself represents a juicy role for any actor, but a veteran like Pryce is able to sink his teeth into it and disappear, turning in something truly memorable.

The Two Popes presents an interesting Academy Award question for Netflix. The flick has across the board potential, but voters rarely embrace one distributor/studio as much as they would have to do with the streamer in order to get this one major Oscar love. Still, efforts in various categories are required. A concerted effort to get into Best Picture, Best Director (for Meirelles) Best Actor (for Pryce), Best Supporting Actor (for Hopkins), Best Adapted Screenplay (for McCarten), Best Production Design, Best Cinematography, Best Film Editing, Best Makeup & Hairstyling, and Best Original Score. Adapted Screenplay is right now almost a sure bet, though watch out for the Academy to potentially move it to Original Screenplay, where it would still contend to win. Otherwise, Pryce and Hopkins seem likely to get nominated. Beyond that, it just depends on how the Oscars take to this one.

Starting today, audiences who have heard all of the raves for The Two Popes this fall can finally give it a look, as it’s hitting theaters. Next month, on December 20th, it’ll land on Netflix, but for now, you can only see it in theaters. Take it from me, it’s worth seeking out. The streaming giant has a third big time awards contender on their hands here. One look at it and you’ll almost certainly agree. This is a real winner, plain and simple.

Be sure to check out The Two Popes, in select theaters now and streaming on Netflix starting on December 20th!

About Joey Magidson

A graduate of Stony Brook University (where he studied Cinema and Cultural Studies), resides in Brooklyn, New York. He contributes to several other film-related websites and is a member of the Broadcast Film Critics Association.

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