The Two Popes Review: Netflix Delivers a Religious Experience [Austin Film Festival 2019]


Something magical can happen when an excellent, proven, seasoned performer is given compelling material to work with. Sometimes, we’re lucky enough to see two such performers given that very opportunity in the same movie, which is then built around them and is engineered to ride or die on the strengths of those performances. Such is the case with Netflix’s The Two Popes, which stars Anthony Hopkins (Silence of the Lambs, Amistad) and Jonathan Pryce (Stigmata, Game of Thrones) as the actors at its center. Both Hopkins and Pryce are at the very top of their respective games in the latest from director Fernando Meirelles (City of God), propelling this fascinating real-life religious dramedy into the awards season conversation.

The Two Popes centers on Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who is frustrated with the direction of the Catholic Church and, in 2012, requests permission to retire from Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Instead, caught in the middle of scandal and self-doubt, Pope Benedict, feeling introspective, summons Cardinal Bergoglio, one of his most outspoken critics, to discuss their differences, with the Pope ultimately revealing a secret that has the potential to shake the very foundations of the Catholic Church. The two enter into a struggle that, at its center, deals with tradition and progress, as well as guilt and forgiveness. These two wildly different men must confront their pasts to find common ground in an attempt to forge a future for their millions of followers around the world.

Perhaps the most striking thing to me, right off the bat, about this movie is the tone. One would think a story such as this, dealing with deep religious themes, existential crisis and other unpleasant parts of the history of the Catholic Church, might be extra heavy. No doubt, writer Anthony McCarten (The Theory of Everything) and Fernando Meirelles make sure to treat the subject matter with respect and weight when need be, but the movie ends up being surprisingly funny. There is plenty of levity thrown in to make sure it never feels overly bogged down. It’s not a slog to get through. Meirelles brings an unexpected eccentricity to it that helps set it apart.

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Truly, The Two Popes is a stunning showcase of acting talent by its co-leads and that’s where the price of admission pays off for this Netflix original. Anthony Hopkins is doing some of his best work in ages (in movies anyway, as he’s quite good in HBO’s Westworld) as Pope Benedict. This is Hopkins playing to the strengths afforded to him by his age, while also using the gravitas we’ve come to associate with him to paint a truly amazing picture of a powerful figure, who is struggling in a big way. Jonathan Pryce, a man who has done seemingly everything on screen before from playing a Bond villain to portraying Sherlock Holmes, matches, if not (dare I say) surpasses Hopkins at every turn. While I’ve not seen every single thing Pryce has ever been in, he’s an actor I love and I’m confident in saying this may well be a career-best performance. It’s two Oscar-caliber showcases going toe-to-toe, yet working in perfect symmetry.

I, myself, am not a religious man. Yet, this movie resonated with me deeply. I laughed. I cried. I was moved. I was inspired. This is a movie that deals with two powerful figures who couldn’t be further apart and, in the end, find common ground, coming together to do what they feel is best for the world. One can easily see how a message such as this could resonate so deeply in our current landscape that is so constantly, frustratingly divided. This is a poignant, heart-filled movie that came along at just the right time, with two very memorable performances serving as its North Star. The Two Popes arrives in select theaters on November 27 before hitting the Netflix streaming service on December 20.

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Ryan Scott at Movieweb