When I first saw the trailer for Netflix’s The Two Popes, I wasn’t particularly encouraged. I felt the streaming network was selling a squishy version of the transition between the two pontiffs.
Was I ever wrong.
That’s not to say The Two Popes is an ultra-hard-hitting film about the Catholic faith and its leader. It’s not quite that. That might have been a film I would have liked even more, but I don’t want to talk about the film they didn’t make. I’d rather speak about the one they did. Which for all of the pitfalls and its occasional lapses into “soft-focus” criticism of some of the more difficult issues the church has faced in recent years, The Two Popes (directed by Fernando Meirelles) is a surprisingly taut, entertaining, and, as far as it’s willing to go, an honest depiction of the friction within the church about its direction.
In a film like this – which is basically two old guys talking about religious philosophy – casting is everything. Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict does his best work in years. The 81-year-old Hopkins is one of the finest actors of his generation, and after all he’s done, he deserves some slack for some of the hammier, lazier performances he’s given over the last decade. Still, it was a true delight to see him in such fine form as the ultra-conservative Pope who comes to realize a stark reality about his background. The film touches on his past as a Hitler youth, his decisions as the leader of the church, and the declining number of parishioners worldwide. His presence as the highest authority of the faith has become a detriment to the health of the church. Hopkins is as subtle as I’ve seen him in ages here while still maintaining a bit of the showman’s touch. What’s most surprising about his performance (and the film as a whole) is how frequently funny it is, as when Benedict admits he doesn’t get jokes (although he says it with a slight twinkle in his eye).
For The Two Popes to be ultimately successful, Hopkins needs the perfect foil, which brings me to Jonathan Pryce. For over forty years now, Pryce has served as a reliable and frequently excellent actor on both film and television. I first took note of him for his single scene in Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), playing James Lingk – a man both looking to be talked into and out of a real estate deal by Al Pacino’s sleek salesman, Ricky Roma. Most people talk about Alec Baldwin’s brilliant one-shot in Glengarry – as well they should – but far too few speak of Pryce’s desperate, sweaty performance as a man cowed by his sensible wife at home and the salesman who he’s afraid to disappoint. It’s masterful stuff. You can see the agony on Pryce’s face with every word Pacino utters. This is a man who knows that if he doesn’t kill this deal, he can’t go home. Yet, how does he tell the smooth-talking Ricky “No”?
Pryce scored some Oscar buzz three years later playing writer Lytton Strachey across from Emma Thompson in Carrington. He was droll and tragic – often in the same scene. The film wasn’t well seen however, and Pryce was passed over. The next twenty years were relatively kind to Pryce, as he frequently turned up in classy projects – all of which he made better even as he was probably being taken for granted by critics and filmgoers.
Since 2015, Pryce has enjoyed a sudden, and I suppose somewhat unexpected late-career peak. First as the High Sparrow in Game of Thrones where as a religious extremist he was downright terrifying. Then in 2017, he was quite wonderful as the philandering and far-too-unappreciative husband of Glenn Close in The Wife. Sony Pictures understandably put most of their Oscar campaign energy into Glenn Close’s incredible work as the titular character, but Pryce was nearly her equal – which is really saying something.
Now, with The Two Popes, Pryce has a fresh opportunity to gain his first Oscar nomination and get off that list of the best actors to never garner one. It would be well deserved. As the reluctant Cardinal Bergolio (soon to become Pope Francis), Pryce is simply a wonder. Whether he’s extolling the virtues of a progressive direction for the church or the joys of Abba (yes, that Abba), Pryce infuses every moment with dignity and humor. Bergolio is a humble man who thinks he’s going to Rome to tender his resignation to a Pope he expects will be all too willing to accept it – seeing as they are on opposite ends of the conservative/progressive spectrum.
What instead ensues is a bit of a cat and mouse game between the two. Bergolio (along with everyone else) is kept in the dark about Benedict’s intentions to step down as Pope. He is often bemused and befuddled by their back and forth. At times the look in his eyes all but shouts: “If you dislike me so much, why won’t you just let me go?” But Benedict has other ideas. He is feeling out the Argentinian cardinal, taking his measure as his possible successor. What unfolds through the film is two men gaining respect for one another and maybe even friendship. They are as unlikely a duo as you could imagine – an odd couple of pontiffs, you might say. And when Benedict finally reveals the reason he’s been spending so much time with a person he disagrees with on almost everything, the shock in Bergolio’s eyes is palpable. His concern about Benedict stepping down is multifold: What does this do to the church? What does this mean for the position of Pope? And finally, am I up to this?
I think often in life we look at positions of power and think the best person for the job is the one who doesn’t want it. The person whose ego is too small to go for it, but whose decency and humility would be a tonic for the masses they oversee. What we learn from watching The Two Popes is that in getting to know Cardinal Bergolio, Benedict reaches the conclusion that while their disagreements are innumerable, Bergolio’s temperament and sensibilities are appropriate for the age to come.
As a viewer, what matters most is that we see what Benedict sees. We see the inherent decency of a man who must live within the confines of tradition while being compelled to put his pinky toe into the future. There is never a moment when we doubt that Bergolio is that man, because for every second onscreen, Jonathan Pryce is that man – the guy who may just be too good for the job. If for even one moment we stopped believing in him, the film would fall apart. That Pryce accomplishes this without ever raising his voice, or saying “Look at me!” proves that he was the only man to play Bergolio. He does all of this while working across from a top-form Anthony Hopkins. It is a performance of great humility that is a pitch-perfect match for the character he is playing.
We don’t get that as often as we would like. When we do, it should be recognized. I urge the Academy to do so.