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Wednesday, October 2, 2019

NTXFF - The Two Popes

“The Two Popes” sounds promising on paper, a collaboration between a renowned group of artists - director Fernando Meirelles, writer Anthony McCarten, and actors Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. While it’s a movie that sounds like all the pieces should slide easily into place, it never seems to click together.

The movie begins in 2005, during the papal conclave resulting in Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger’s (Anthony Hopkins) election as pope, known as Pope Benedict XVI. The runner-up, Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is shown to be a rival, a more liberally minded member of the Catholic Church suggesting an impending change.

Years after Benedict’s ascension, Bergoglio decides it’s time to retire. It won’t spoil anything to say that Bergoglio doesn’t retire. For those that don’t know, he’s the current pope – Pope Francis. Not hearing a response from Benedict, who has to approve the choice, Bergoglio buys a plane ticket for Rome. Coincidentally, Benedict’s response, inviting him to Rome, arrives after he’s bought his ticket. As it turns out, both men see this as an answer from God. The majority of the movie takes place in Rome, focused on a series of, I assume, imagined conversations between Pope Benedict and the future Pope Francis.

Benedict doesn’t want Bergoglio to retire. He thinks the retirement will send the wrong message to the people and he thinks Bergoglio is the most likely candidate to be elected as the next pope, a job that Bergoglio doesn’t want. McCarten uses flashbacks to explain Bergoglio’s hesitation, exploring his past actions in 1970s militant Argentina.

While the conversations on their own are interesting, presenting a clashing of ideals, Meirelles decides to present them in a stylized manner that detracts from the dialogue. Shots are horribly framed. At times, there’s too much headroom. Other shots are sloppy, chopping off sections of the actors’ faces or suddenly zooming in for a closeup. The editing is frenzied, taking on the hectic nature of a Michael Bay action movie. Why choose to present a character drama in this manner? It’s like Meirelles doesn’t have enough confidence in the audience’s attention span.

There’s one scene, late in the film, that works wonderfully. Bergoglio is asked to the Vatican to continue his discussion with Benedict. A guard guides him to a darkened room. As Bergoglio walks into the room, the camera pans up and the room brightens through a vibrant white glow revealing the Sistine Chapel. The ensuing scene is shot in a manner that captures the beauty of the room, creating an engaging backdrop that doesn’t distract from the dialogue. Whenever Meirelles allows the scenes to have a more natural flow they play better. Too bad the majority of the movie isn’t handled this way.

Maybe my expectations were too high from all the glowing praise this has received so far. On initial watch, I’m disappointed.
(Review by Bret Oswald)

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