2019 Milwaukee Film Festival – Day Seven – THE TWO POPES
Membership has its privileges. One of the best perks of being a member of Milwaukee Film, besides supporting the film festival and its year round programming as a whole, is being able to attend the annual Member’s Only Secret Screening at the Milwaukee Film Festival. You never know what the film will be, but judging from past films such as SHORT TERM 12, SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, FACES PLACES, and FREE SOLO you anticipate that it’s going to be something highly anticipated. The Milwaukee Film Festival didn’t disappoint this year bringing THE TWO POPES to the members screening.
THE TWO POPES tells the story of Pope Benedict XVI and future Pope Francis, mostly just Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio in the film, as they have a series of talks in the Vatican as Bergoglio is seeking permission to resign. And, surprise, he learns that Pope Benedict has other plans.
On the surface, this doesn’t seem like the stuff of an exciting movie. Sure there’s the pomp of the Vatican to provide visual interest, but why a movie instead of a play? Fernando Mereilles answers that question with a film that’s witty, beautiful, funny, humane, and touching and uses all of the tools of cinema.
Fernando Mereilles’ main triumph is that he finds the humanity in these symbols of the Catholic Church. And, the smart screenplay, has the two protagonists discover the humanity in each other at the same time. It would be very easy to present Pope Benedict XVI as an out of touch, conservative, cold, elitist, and certainly the film doesn’t hide from those criticisms of him, but it also finds him as a smart, man of true faith who is deeply committed to the Church and his own relationship with God. The film is clearly on the side of Pope Francis, delighting in his warmth, humility, and love of soccer, but also willing to bring up his flaws and what he and the film views as past mistakes over misguided cooperation with the Argentinean military junta of the 1970s.
This is aided by an extremely smart and warm script by Anthony McCarten. An example might be an incident at the beginning of the film where Pope Francis is trying to book a flight by phone, and gets hung up on by the airline as a prank call when he gets to saying his address is the Vatican City. It’s an incident that might not be true, but ought to be, and tells us right away that this isn’t going to be a dry, recitation of facts, but a lively and funny movie. One that’s still interested in the contrast in world views between the two men. The screen still crackles when the two debate their worldviews of what the Catholic Church ought to be, where it priorities should lie, and whether that’s compromise or not. The film may at heart be a character study of two important men, but it doesn’t forget the larger issues of the day that these men embody. And that debate is crackling in a way that the best movie debates are. Neither man is necessarily wrong, both believe in their positions strongly, but unlike much of politics of the day, they listen to each other and understand and tolerate where the other is coming from.
All of that comes out in two terrific performances from Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. This is likely Hopkins’s best performance since THE REMAINS OF THE DAY. Pope Benedict XVI may be reserved and cold, but he’s also extremely smart when defending his view of the faith and the chemistry between he and his opposite is surprisingly warm. And, he’s a man who’s not so proud that he won’t acknowledge his mistakes.
But, it’s clearly Jonathan Pryce’s standout performance. It’s hard to imagine that Pryce was regarded as cold in his earlier days as he just radiates warmth and humanity here. His Pope Francis is a man of the people, full of humor, and empathy. And he’s full of humanity. It’s easy to see why this Cardinal would gather a wide following. Perhaps the standout moments are when Pryce is simply silent. Listening, looking, and letting his doubts, empathy, and perhaps a sly smile run across his face. I expect that this performance will be up for an Oscar.
Visually, THE TWO POPES is a surprise. It’s edited tightly, catching everything it needs to but not overstaying. Flashing back to important parts of Pope Francis’s life. And, occasionally and often, cutting to soccer games which Pope Francis loves. And, THE TWO POPES uses the Vatican wisely. Much of the film is a conversation in a recreation of the Sistine Chapel. Amidst this great beauty, the men debate their faith, their flaws, and hear each others confessions. Whether true or not, it’s the perfect setting for the film.
THE TWO POPES is everything you want out of this type of story. It’s smart, it’s witty, it’s humane, and it’s illuminating. Told with enough visual panache to never become stagey. It’s one of the best movies of the year. I think Netflix is going to have a real hit on their hands with this one.
The 2019 Milwaukee Film Festival runs from October 17, 2019 to October 31, 2019. Information and tickets can be found at Milwaukee Film’s website mkefilm.org.