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This popularity of yours. Is there a trick to it?

The Two Popes
(2019)

(SPOILERS) Ricky Gervais’ Golden Globes joke, in which he dropped The Two Popes onto a list of the year’s films about paedophiles, rather preceded the picture’s Oscar prospects (three nominations), but also rather encapsulated the conversation currently synonymous with the forever tainted Roman Catholic church; it’s the first thing anyone thinks of. And let’s face it, Jonathan Pryce’s unamused response to the gag could have been similarly reserved for the fate of his respected but neglected film. More people will have heard Ricky’s joke than will surely ever see the movie. Which, aside from a couple of solid lead performances, probably isn’t such an omission.

Because The Two Popes, despite its prestige leads and director (Fernando Meirelles, although admittedly, he hasn’t really wowed anyone since The Constant Gardener), has been massaged into meticulous averageness of content by screenwriter Anthony McCarten, adapting his book The Pope: Francis, Benedict and the Decision that Shook the World. You may not have heard of McCarten, but he has firmly established himself as the go-to-guy for meticulously average, inoffensively palatable biopic content in the form of lightweight populist awards darlings The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour and Bohemian Rhapsody.

Now, I’m not knocking any of these in terms of being agreeably watchable movies, each with a range of satisfying performances and displaying impressive craftsmanship on all counts. However, their greater commonality is an utter lack of anything approaching a challenging take on their subjects. Each comes out of the McCarten blender shorn of any edges, transformed into personality-free pulp designed to be as easily and effortlessly digestible as possible; they’re Oscar-worthy (with The Theory of Everything and now The Two Popes, McCarten has received two Best Screenplay nods) Lifetime movie fare. He’s the crown prince of the safe biopic.

So if you thought McCarten might seriously get to grips with weighty, sobering issues – and those are the only issues when it comes to the Catholic church today – you can put that one safely to bed. Early on in The Two Popes, there’s a flavour, a pleasant waft, suggesting he might go in such a direction, just as in all his films, there’s a glimmer that intelligence and insight into his subject matter might gain ground, before something much less confrontational determinedly holds sway. Meirelles utilises period footage (often from the BBC) as he documents the death of John Paul II and the scandals that engulf the church under his successor Benedict XVI’s reign (2005-13). Cardinal Bergoglio was the “runner-up” in that election, eventually to become Pope Francis when Benedict stepped down, and the “in” for McCarten in this story proved easy; the clash of attitudes between the two pontiffs. The (relatively) progressive Argentinian man of the people, shunning the prestige and baubles of office, versus the strict German disciplinarian, who feels his predecessor became too liberal and that change is compromise.

And their first meeting proper – when they previously encountered each other, Benedict registered undisguised distaste for Bergoglio’s freer attitudes – is, credit where it’s due, exactly what one might hope from a dramatisation of their conflicting ethea. Bergoglio (Pryce) has come to see Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) at the Palace of Castel Gandolfo, the pope’s summer retreat, wishing to resign, and Benedict, while taking him to task for his principles, consistently avoids the salient matter.

We see Bergoglio enjoying the grounds, casually getting on with the gardener, before the two get down to meaty doctrinal matters (the celibacy of priests, homosexuality, the communion). Bergoglio has no compunction in looking inconsistency in the eye, while Benedict would seek to bury it beneath rigidity and dogma; there were no mention of angels prior to the fifth century, Bergoglio tells him, “and suddenly, angels are everywhere”. His point being that nothing is static, “not even God”. “God doesn’t change” snaps the indignant pope. “Yes, he does” replies his cardinal. “He comes towards us.”

Unfortunately, McCarten doesn’t take long to dispense with such high-minded talk, opting instead to turn this tale of two popes into a buddy movie, one where they exchange confessions and embrace mutual respect. Bergoglio allowed himself to be cowed to the fascists four decades earlier and has never forgiven himself (albeit he clearly wasn’t chastened to the degree that he felt himself unfit for the priesthood), and a good portion of his countryfolk have never forgiven him either. Benedict meanwhile, rather than telling Bergoglio how much he regrets having been in the Hitler Youth – the closest we get to this being explicitly referenced is footage of a critic yelling “The Nazi should never have been elected” – confesses that he ignored evidence of paedophile priests.

In response to which, Benedict is outraged. Albeit, McCarten pulls a massive dodge here, either because he can’t be arsed to actually dig into the matter or because he feels it would surrender the picture’s commerciality/appeal (as if it was ever going to float in that regard – why else did it end up with Netflix?) Whatever the white noise content of their exchange, don’t worry, never fear, it isn’t enough to dent what is becoming a rollicking good friendship. The picture thus takes on a more and more anaemic course as it continues. Even the extended flashbacks to young Bergoglio’s fall from grace have a slightly antiseptic, handwringing quality. I’m sure McCarten will argue that he didn’t shy away from this element and wants viewers to make up their own minds, but it serves to underline the picture’s fatal lack of a point of view.

The Two Popes is, ultimately, a very comfortable and non-confrontational biopic, one that wants you to like both these men (so it’s like every other biopic McCarten has written). It’s junk food served on a silver platter. As a consequence, its problem fact check-wise, isn’t that there’s inevitable make-believe, it’s that the make-believe – starting with Bergoglio even meeting with Benedict to discuss his retirement – is so facile. Naturally, there are moves to soften or humanise these figures, no small feat in Benedict’s case (he really does like Fanta, but being a fan of Kommissar Rex, about a crime-busting German Shepherd is hilariously daft), but when the film concludes with the carefree pair watching the 2014 World Cup Final together, having already witnessed Bergoglio invite Benedict to tango, you have to throw up your hands in despair. Or seek out something truly thought provoking. Maybe, I don’t know, climb aboard a Tube train in the vain hope Winnie will appear and take stock as he listens to the proles tell him how it is.

The performances are very good, Pryce in particular, in many scenes delivering to my imperfect ear convincingly fluent Spanish and getting all the loveable beats (including being a footie fan and telling jokes such as “How does an Argentinian kill himself? He climbs to the top of his ego and jumps off”). Hopkins is also serviceable, although I ended up wondering why they didn’t have done with it and cast Ian McDiarmid.

Still, though, the duo’s Oscar nominations belie that this is a script throwing them disingenuous softballs (“The hardest thing is to listen. To hear his voice”. “Even for a pope?” asks the wondering Bergoglio, which is a question of the writer, not a cardinal well aware of his own and infallible popes’ failings). I wouldn’t have expected The Two Popes to attack the edifice of the Roman Catholic Church – it might have known where to start, but where would it end? – but I could still have hoped it would have been slightly less toothless than it is. Meirelles’ film is easy-going viewing – that’s McCarten for you – but ultimately less satisfying than the writer’s previous eager-to-please biopics. Because, I think, anyone who isn’t a lifetime member of the Vatican fan club would not unreasonably have expected it to dig a little deeper.


Agree? Disagree? Mildly or vehemently? Let me know in the comments below.

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