In the hands of a lesser director, The Two Popes might been just a theological spin on My Dinner with Andre: two learned men with differing world views sitting around talking while the camera does little more than document their repartee. But The Two Popes has Brazil's Fernando Meirelles at the helm, and Meirelles, the director of City of God, still one of the most visceral, thrilling films of the 21st century, isn't one to let his camera sit still. With rapid-fire editing, a wide variety of shots, and an eccentric approach to soundtracks, he may at first seem an odd choice to shoot this dramatization of the resignation of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the ascension of Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce). Even after seeing the film, he remains an odd choice. But whether or not The Two Popes works for you, you can't deny that Meirelles did what he could to keep it from being stuffy.
While the bulk of the movie does unfold in 2013 in the Vatican City (expertly reproduced, down to the Sistine Chapel, by production designer Mark Tildesley), The Two Popes is chockablock with flashbacks: the film's story is really that of Pope Francis, the erstwhile Jorge Bergoglio, and we spend much of our time with the younger Bergoglio in the Buenos Aires of the 1950s and 1970s, particularly during the coup d'état that led to Argentina's so-called Dirty War. Bergoglio's guilt over not doing more to stand up to right-wing death squads does little to dampen what often feels like hagiography; in fact, it only supports Bergoglio's sense of humility, which pervades every second of Jonathan Pryce's performance.
Indeed, while he gets no flashbacks of his own, it is Benedict who comes across as the more interesting character here. It's incredible to bear witness to a Pope's resignation: Benedict was the first to step down in over 700 years. While The Two Popes makes a swift and convincing argument as to why he renounced the papacy – in short, he saw that his out-of-touch conservatism, especially in the face of myriad sexual abuse cases in the church, was doing Catholicism no favors – we get little insight into who Joseph Ratzinger really is.
Though Anthony Hopkins is incapable of losing his Welsh dialect, even when playing a German, his clipped speaking style is a perfect match for the standoffish man he's portraying. He hasn't been this compelling in years. As for Pryce, while he's certainly a fine actor, here he does little more than be gentle and self-effacing. I wanted to tell him, I get it: Francis is a modest, likable man. Got anything else? I really can't defend his Best Actor Oscar nomination in such a competitive year, especially given that the more watchable Hopkins was relegated to the Best Supporting Actor category. (Both actors share equal screen time; most of the flashbacks have different actors portraying Bergoglio.)
Quirky, human, and often very witty, The Two Popes is far from the staid "homework movie" you fear it might be. Nevertheless, it is a tad overlong (the 1970s sequences kind of drag), and it frankly pays undue attention to the man who, while he may be the better pope, is the less interesting screen character.