MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Two Popes’ short on facts, but is a ‘visual feast’

MOVIE REVIEW: ‘Two Popes’ short on facts, but is a ‘visual feast’
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(PG-13)

Two and a half out of four stars

A high-pedigree, awards-seeking drama which seems to have fallen through the cracks in most year-end critics polls, “The Two Popes” is yet another recent “based on a true story” movie which puts actual facts on the back-burner in favor of unneeded, often superfluous embellishment.

One of the two high profile stories to rock the Catholic Church over the last two decades, the sudden retirement of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the improbable thrusting of Pope Francis I (Jonathan Pryce) on to the center of the world’s largest religious stage was so dramatic and unexpected, had it been conceived as original fiction, no one would have believed it.

A story no one wanted to swallow was the black eye the church incurred from the ever-escalating global instances of pedophilia, a situation even the universally loved and respected Pope John Paul II couldn’t dismiss or explain away. With John Paul II’s death in 2005, the church found itself at a moral and public relations crossroads and, it being a nearly 2,000 year old institution with very specific and set ways, it was unlikely to make any major changes in its approach to, well, anything.

In retrospect, the conformation of Benedict XVI as the high pontiff was a logical one. He was a strict conservative set on maintaining the status quo while appearing to address the church’s bad PR. That worked, but for only a short while.

As explained in “The Two Popes,” Benedict XVI (on the clock for a relatively brief eight years) either grew tired of the job itself or finally came to the realization that a sea change was inevitable and sensed he was not the right guy to be the point man weathering the certain impending ideological storm. Benedict XVI wanted a graceful exit and chose to call on his formal rival to help facilitate the transition with the least possible amount of fuss or fanfare.

Based on his own stage play “The Pope,” the screenplay by Anthony McCarten (“Bohemian Rhapsody,” “The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour”) would appear to be something comprised largely of conjecture, as private meetings between members of the church hierarchy aren’t generally made public or even witnessed by in-house third parties. It would be more than fair to consider this less factual and more of a work of fiction involving two high-profile, non-fictional characters, which in itself doesn’t automatically deem it dismissible as art.

Helmed by the esteemed Brazilian director Fernando Mairelles (“The Constant Gardener,” “City of God”), the movie is a visual feast. With brilliant cinematography from his frequent collaborator Cesar Charlone and impeccable set designs, Mairelles delivers a feature worthy of its lofty and spiritual subject matter. If high-end aesthetics is something you value a lot, if not more, than content, you should probably see it on a big screen before it switches over exclusively to Netflix on Dec. 20.

The film’s obvious big draw, Hopkins plays Benedict XVI with the appropriate aloof and brittle obstinance while carefully cloaking the former pontiff’s shrewd political acumen and persuasive powers. One of the least known and underappreciated of all living actors, Pryce matches Hopkins note for note and for all but the last five minutes, he’s not Francis I but rather Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, a humble Argentinean priest with no designs on becoming pope, but rather serving his local flock.

The narrative spends far too much time on the two men together exchanging pleasantries and small talk where more of the nuts and bolts of Vatican politics and the future of the church would have been preferred and more enlightening. The elephant-in-the-room avoidance of the church’s sex scandal taking place at the time the film is set is also a huge missed opportunity.

Devout Catholics looking for a no-frills recounting of this practically unheard of change in leadership (only one other pope – Gregory XII in 1415 – ever resigned the papacy) will likely be disappointed as everything revealed in the film is already known to the faithful or pure speculation. However, watching two powerhouse actors portray these two iconic figures of the church alone might be a worthy investment of your time and money.

There’s a great movie to be made about this historic transfer of power within the secretive walls of the world’s wealthiest and most influential organization, but “The Two Popes” isn’t it.

Presented in English and infrequent subtitled Latin, Italian, Spanish and German.

(Netflix)

This article originally ran on gwinnettdailypost.com.

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