'The Two Popes' adds up to less than the sum of its parts

Posted November 27, 2019 9:03 a.m. EST

— What would it be like to listen in on a discussion between Pope Benedict XVI and his successor, Pope Francis? "The Two Pope" answers that tantalizing question -- with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in the key roles -- and somehow adds up to less than the sum of its parts.

Hitting theaters in advance of its more logical home on Netflix, this handsome movie captures the pageantry of the Vatican, and bores into the philosophical issues separating these two pontiffs: Benedict, an stern traditionalist, among those who allowed the Catholic Church's child-molestation crisis to fester; and Francis, a more worldly reformer, convinced the church must adapt to modern realities.

"We are losing people," Pryce's then-Cardinal Bergoglio says, a warning presented, as is his way, in a charming and genial matter.

Directed by Fernando Meirelles ("City of God") from a script by Anthony McCarten, "The Two Popes" goes back to Benedict's ascent after the death of Pope John Paul II in 2005, when some of the cardinals pushed for Bergoglio, who resisted the political aspects of being their champion.

Disillusioned by the church's direction, Bergoglio is ready to resign seven years later, when Benedict summons him to Rome, for an audience whose purpose leaves the cardinal confused. The two debate policy and theology -- the value of compromise and change versus principle and tradition -- before Benedict drops his bombshell: That he's planning to step down, and doesn't want Bergoglio to leave, which would be perceived as a sign of protest.

So far so pretty good, as Hopkins and Pryce spar elegantly, while Bergoglio fears the impact that Benedict's departure amid scandal would have on the institution. But seemingly recognizing the slightly claustrophobic nature of the encounter, the lens expands to Bergoglio's past, and the guilt associated with his time in Argentina under military dictatorship in the 1970s.

"The Two Popes" thus becomes, basically, two movies, neither of them wholly satisfying -- one more cerebral, much like a stage play about their private meetings and theological differences; the other a biography of Francis and what shaped him, illustrated by flashbacks in which he's played by Juan Minujín.

Given the deeply personal nature of the exchange of ideas, the "inspired by true events" description evokes more skepticism than usual, and indeed, the production notes refer to it as an "imagined" conversation. That doesn't necessarily undermine the broader points, but it does take something away from the smaller flourishes, like Benedict's German sense of humor (not much, he concedes) or Francis' impassioned pitch for soccer.

Shot in Rome and Argentina, the movie conveys the romance and higher ideals associated with the Catholic Church, while grappling with the larger issues of its role in modern society that have been so fundamental since Francis' election.

"The Two Popes" thus provides food for thought, and features a pair of world-class actors. But thanks to its dual priorities, the qualities that recommend the film -- especially in terms of making time to see it theatrically -- mostly go up in smoke.

"The Two Popes" premieres Nov. 27 in select theaters and Dec. 20 on Netflix.

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