2020 Oscar Reviews: The Two Popes

Each year for the past few years, I have attempted to watch as many of that year’s Oscar nominees as possible before the awards are presented. It’s just a little personal challenge for fun, and I’ve had varying degrees of success in both seeing the films, and making predictions (ok that’s stretching the truth- my predictions are always failures). This year the nomination announcements caught Me by surprise somehow. I’d managed to completely miss the Golden Globes (whose nominations I usually use to get a jump start), and for the first time ever, I have not seen a single one of the nominees already on my own. Doh! Lots of work to do! Last year I wrote up reviews of all the nominees I managed to see, and published both my predictions, and my reactions. I hope to do the same this year, but I’ll try to write up my reviews individually as I see the films, and then will do a big prediction post at the end. Today we focus on…

The Two Popes

(3 nominations, including best actor – Jonathan Pryce, best supporting actor – Sir Anthony Hopkins, and best adapted screenplay)

The Two Popes is a quiet contender amid a loud and crazy field of adrenaline, violence, and rage. It’s just two popes chilling, hanging out, talking things over. One is a hip cool street pope, the other is a crotchety old pope who barely knows The Beatles (so lame, grandpa!). Its successful execution relies very heavily on the acting chops of its two main actors, who basically engage in a two hour long dialogue for the vast majority of the film, and on a smart and careful screenplay that manages to pull off two straight hours of a single dialogue. So, unsurprisingly, the nominations for this film reflect that. Kudos all around for pulling it off;  you can’t get much better actors than Jonathan Pryce and Sir Anthony Hopkins. I mean look at these badass popes:


If an entire movie of two dudes just talking to each other sounds like it should be a play, well, that’s because it is. Writer Anthony McCarten adapted his successful play into this movie adaptation. And while, like I said, the crux of the film lies in the dialogue between these two main characters, the film version integrated several components that added true value while simultaneously keeping the film from dragging. Like with most stage-to-film adaptations, the dialogue was cut up into several shorter conversations, with the characters moving between different settings. That worked pretty much as well as it usually does. The potential monotony was also effectively shaken up by vivid flashbacks to Francis’ earlier life in Argentina (through tango clubs, chemistry labs, military coups, mountaintop soccer practice, and slum ministries), which created a strong contrast to the stuffy and glamorous papal residences where most of the rest of the film was taking place.

But the most effective achievement of the film which any play would be lacking is the stunning visuals of life for a pope. Much has been made about the gigantic replica Sistine Chapel which was erected for this film (and supposedly cost a gajillion dollars), and sweeping architectural backdrops certainly made an impression. But just as mesmerizing were the countless visual details, such as the pope’s red shoes, or threadig votes during the pope election (my apologies to Catholic readers- I do not know if there are proper terms for any of this). I couldn’t find screenshots of these smaller details, but here’s some other striking imagery to tide you over until you see the movie:

Some viewers will still nevertheless find this movie dull. Like I said, it’s a quiet entry. But it has a lot to say, particularly about anyone who struggles with the role of religion in our modern world. Our two characters both face these questions in their own way. Hopkins’ Pope Benedict, despite being as traditional and stodgy as they come, shuffles around his ancient estate at the behest of his nagging Fitbit. Pope Francis wants to leave a church which he feels is no longer relevant, preferring to live among the common people, watching football on TV at the pub. Neither of them feels fully comfortable in their role, and neither one particularly likes the other (at first- doh, spoiler!), but over time they help one another work through these issues.

Purists may take issue with the lack of historical accuracy in the film. While Benedict and Francis are indeed real people, and the events depicted are real, the conversation that we spend two hours listening to is completely imagined by McCarten. After watching the film, I read that it turns out the relationship between the two popes, and the transition of power from one to the other, was anything but smooth and chummy. But if interpreted as a sort of mental exercise, viewers should find it a rewarding film.

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