It’s 2013, and Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) wants to resign. Nobody knows this yet. He has to tell someone. Just because popes are infallible doesn’t mean they have to keep a secret.
As it happens, that someone is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the archbishop of Buenos Aires. Not only was the cardinal the runner-up in the conclave that elected Benedict pope, in 2005. And not only is Bergoglio the de facto leader of the Catholic Church’s liberal wing, making him sort of the opposition leader to Benedict. And not only will Bergoglio succeed Benedict, becoming Pope Francis (that’s a lot of “not only’s” — but “The Two Popes” is the not-only movie to end not-only movies). Bergoglio wants to resign, too, as archbishop, and that’s why they’re meeting.
Pretty symmetrical, huh?
As “Two Popes” preposterousness goes, that symmetry doesn’t rank all that high, not compared to the pizza-eating, tango-dancing, World Cup-watching, and Abba fandom (Francis’s, not Benedict’s). Anthony McCarten’s script takes the fact of there being two living popes, who happen to be ideological opposites, and embroiders it with all sorts of fictions to within an inch of its afterlife.
Embroiders is a good word. Viewed simply as pageantry — papal garb; Church ritual; Vatican interiors; the gardens at Castel Gandolfo, the papal country retreat — “The Two Popes” has appeal. Visuals would be the chief argument for seeing the Netflix production during its theatrical run. The movie begins streaming Dec. 20.
The lure of the pageantry is most apparent in an early sequence, thanks to how expertly, even excitingly, director Fernando Meirelles handles the voting for pope. It’s a sight to see all those cardinals with their ballots, and the ballots then being sewn together with red thread, before the white smoke goes up. Meirelles (“City of God,” 2002; “The Constant Gardener,” 2005) knows what he’s doing.
Pryce and Hopkins really know what they’re doing. Pryce especially: The ease with which he impersonates the future pope is underscored by Juan Minujin’s strenuousness (that’s not a compliment) playing the young Francis. He appears in flashbacks to Argentina in the ’50s, ’70s, and early ’80s. Benedict doesn’t get any flashbacks. This is so much Francis’s movie it could be called “The One Pope and the Guy Who Preceded Him, Unfortunately.” Through no fault of Minujin, the flashbacks are the weakest moments in a movie with a lot of them.
What you might expect to be the weakest of those moments, or at least the most tedious, would be the ones with Pryce and Hopkins just talking (and talking and talking): first at Castel Gandolfo, then — sure, why not — in the Sistine Chapel. In fact, those scenes play very well. The actors are such pros that the woodenness of the dialogue and implausibility of the set-up that McCarten has saddled them with almost don’t matter. Almost.
Presumably, when a famous actor like Pryce or Hopkins is given a script what he most cares about is its quality. In this case, the draw might have been the track record of the author. Three of the last five Oscar winners for best actor won playing roles written by McCarten: Eddie Redmayne, in “The Theory of Everything” (2014); Gary Oldman, in “Darkest Hour” (2017); and Rami Malek, in “Bohemian Rhapsody” (2018). Stephen Hawking . . . Winston Churchill . . . Freddie Mercury — now Benedict or Francis? This time of year children have visions of sugar-plums dancing in their heads. At award season, actors have visions of statuettes. As noted, both Pryce and Hopkins are fine. But on the basis of the rest of the movie they shouldn’t have a prayer.
THE TWO POPES
Directed by Fernando Meirelles. Written by Anthony McCarten. Starring Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujin. At Kendall Square; starts streaming on Netflix Dec. 20. 126 minutes. PG-13 (for thematic content and some disturbing violent images). In English, Spanish, Italian, German, and Latin — that’s right, Latin — with subtitles.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.