Skip to main content

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.

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

She was addicted to Tums for a while.

Marriage Story (2019)
(SPOILERS) I don’t tend to fall heavily for Noah Baumbach fare. He’s undoubtedly a distinctive voice – even if his collaborations with Wes Anderson are the least of that director’s efforts – but his devotion to an exclusive, rarefied New York bubble becomes ever more off-putting with each new project. And ever more identifiable as being a lesser chronicler of the city’s privileged quirks than his now disinherited forbear Woody Allen, who at his peak mastered a balancing act between the insightful, hilarious and self-effacing. Marriage Story finds Baumbach going yet again where Woody went before, this time brushing up against the director’s Ingmar Bergman fixation.

You're not only wrong. You're wrong at the top of your voice.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1955)
I’ve seen comments suggesting that John Sturges’ thriller hasn’t aged well, which I find rather mystifying. Sure, some of the characterisations border on the cardboard, but the director imbues the story with a taut, economical backbone. 

He tasks me. He tasks me, and I shall have him.

Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan
(1982)
(SPOILERS) I don’t love Star Trek, but I do love Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. That probably isn’t just me, but a common refrain of many a non-devotee of the series. Although, it used to apply to The Voyage Home (the funny one, with the whales, the Star Trek even the target audience for Three Men and a Baby could enjoy). Unfortunately, its high regard has also become the desperate, self-destructive, song-and-verse, be-all-and-end-all of the overlords of the franchise itself, in whichever iteration, it seems. This is understandable to an extent, as Khan is that rare movie sequel made to transcendent effect on almost every level, and one that stands the test of time every bit as well (better, even) as when it was first unveiled.

My name is Dr. King Schultz, this is my valet, Django, and these are our horses, Fritz, and Tony.

Django Unchained (2012)
(MINOR SPOILERS) Since the painful misstep of Grindhouse/Death Proof, Quentin Tarantino has regained the higher ground like never before. Pulp Fiction, his previous commercial and critical peak, has been at very least equalled by the back-to-back hits of Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained. Having been underwhelmed by his post Pulp Fiction efforts (albeit, I admired his technical advances as a director in Kill Bill), I was pleasantly surprised by Inglourious Basterds. It was no work of genius (so not Pulp Fiction) by any means, but there was a gleeful irreverence in its treatment of history and even to the nominal heroic status of its titular protagonists. Tonally, it was a good fit for the director’s “cool” aesthetic. As a purveyor of postmodern pastiche, where the surface level is the subtext, in some ways he was operating at his zenith. Django Unchained is a retreat from that position, the director caught in the tug between his all-important aesthetic pr…

Reindeer-goat cheese pizza?

Hudson Hawk (1991)
A movie star vanity project going down in flames is usually met with open delight from press and critics alike. Even fans of the star can nurse secret disappointment that they were failed on this occasion. But, never mind, soon they will return to something safe and certain. Sometimes the vehicle is the result of a major star attaching themselves to a project where they are handed too much creative control, where costs spiral and everyone ends up wet (Waterworld, The Postman, Ishtar). In other cases, they bring to screen a passion project that is met with derision (Battlefield Earth). Hudson Hawk was a character created by Bruce Willis, about whom Willis suddenly had the post-Die Hard clout to make a feature.

Old Boggy walks on Lammas Eve.

Jeeves and Wooster 2.5: Kidnapped  (aka The Mysterious Stranger)
Kidnapped continues the saga of Chuffnell Hall. Having said of 2.4 that the best Wodehouse adaptations tend to stick closely to the text, this one is an exception that proves the rule, diverging significantly yet still scoring with its highly preposterous additions.

Jeeves: Tis old boggy. He be abroad tonight. He be heading for the railway station.
Gone are many of the imbroglios involving Stoker and Glossop (the estimable Roger Brierley), including the contesting of the former’s uncle’s will. Also gone, sadly, is the inebriated Brinkley throwing potatoes at Stoker, which surely would have been enormous fun. Instead, we concentrate on Bertie being locked aboard Stoker’s yacht in order to secure his marriage to Pauline (as per the novel), Chuffy tailing Pauline in disguise (so there’s a different/additional reason for Stoker to believe Bertie and she spent the night together, this time at a pub en route to Chufnell Hall) and …

They say if we go with them, we'll live forever. And that's good.

Cocoon (1985)
Anyone coming across Cocoon cold might reasonably assume the involvement of Steven Spielberg in some capacity. This is a sugary, well-meaning tale of age triumphing over adversity. All thanks to the power of aliens. Substitute the elderly for children and you pretty much have the manner and Spielberg for Ron Howard and you pretty much have the approach taken to Cocoon. Howard is so damn nice, he ends up pulling his punches even on the few occasions where he attempts to introduce conflict to up the stakes. Pauline Kael began her review by expressing the view that consciously life-affirming movies are to be consciously avoided. I wouldn’t go quite that far, but you’re definitely wise to steel yourself for the worst (which, more often than not, transpires).

Cocoon is as dramatically inert as the not wholly dissimilar (but much more disagreeable, which is saying something) segment of Twilight Zone: The Movie directed by Spielberg (Kick the Can). There, OAPs rediscover their in…

Barbarians? You call us barbarians?

The Omega Man (1971)
(SPOILERS) Chuck Heston battles albino mutants in 1970s LA. Sure-fire, top-notch B-hokum, right? Can’t miss? Unfortunately, The Omega Man is determinedly pedestrian, despite gestures towards contemporaneity with its blaxploitation nods and media commentary so faint as to be hardly there. Although more tonally subdued and simultaneously overtly “silly” in translating the vampire lore from Richard Matheson’s I am Legend, the earlier The Last Man on Earth is probably the superior adaptation.

Haven’t you ever heard of the healing power of laughter?

Batman (1989)
(SPOILERS) There’s Jaws, there’s Star Wars, and then there’s Batman in terms of defining the modern blockbuster. Jaws’ success was so profound, it changed the way movies were made and marketed. Batman’s marketing was so profound, it changed the way tentpoles would be perceived: as cash cows. Disney tried to reproduce the effect the following year with Dick Tracy, to markedly less enthusiastic response. None of this places Batman in the company of Jaws as a classic movie sold well, far from it. It just so happened to hit the spot. As Tim Burton put it, it was “more of a cultural phenomenon than a great movie”. It’s difficult to disagree with his verdict that the finished product (for that is what it is) is “mainly boring”.

Now, of course, the Burton bat has been usurped by the Nolan incarnation (and soon the Snyder). They have some things in common. Both take the character seriously and favour a sombre tone, which was much more of shock to the system when Burton did it (even…

I think it’s gratuitous, but whatever.

The MCU Ranked Worst to Best
This is an update of a ranking previously published in 2018. I’d intended to post it months ago but these things get side-tracked. You can find the additions of Captain Marvel, Avengers: Endgame, Spider-Man: Far From Home and a revised assessment of Ant-Man and the Wasp. There are also a few tweaks here and there.