Review: The Two Popes

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce in “The Two Popes.”

Dir. Fernando Meirelles. 126 minutes.

Behind the frescoed walls of the Vatican, the aging Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) debates the future of Catholicism with his successor-to-be, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce).

“The Two Popes” has to be taken as drama, not history. The film supposes that Benedict recognized his own obsolescence and chose the reformist Francis as his successor. In actuality, Benedict has spent the past six years hanging around Vatican City like some kind of ruby-slippered Banquo, firing off letters blaming clerical child abuse on the sexual liberalism of the 1960s. “The Two Popes” is “inspired by true events,” but so was “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre.”

This is another one of those movies that takes an array of marvelous ingredients — a rich and thought-provoking premise, two legendary actors, a beautiful setting (the Sistine Chapel!) — and combines them into something merely okay. “The Two Popes” is a cinematic discussion, one of those films that lives and dies by its ability to bring to the surface all the complexities of an idea. It’s clear that the filmmakers are on Francis’s side, which needn’t be a problem. A partisan film can be stimulating, rather than just propagandistic, if it allows its onscreen opponents some real strength and conviction. However, here, Benedict is stiff, stodgy and a little misanthropic, seemingly half-conceding the uselessness of his own conservatism even before he meets Francis. For counter-examples, see Roman Polanski’s “Carnage” or Warren Beatty’s “Reds.”