The fact-based story (i.e. Based on a true story) begins in 2005 with the papal conclave to name a new Pope. The two main candidates, Cardinal Ratzinger (Anthony Hopkins) from Germany and Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) represent polar opposites in terms of approach. Ratzinger is an intellectual bound to tradition. “Whenever I try and be myself people don’t seem to like me much,” he says. Bergoglio is affable, a humble man who can be heard whistling “Dancing Queen” in the halls. “I’m Argentinian,” he says. “Tango and football are compulsory.”
A vote and a puff of white smoke later Ratzinger becomes Pope Benedict while Bergoglio returns to his home country to continue his grass roots ministry.
Cut to seven years later. Pope Benedict is embroiled in a child abuse scandal that sees one of his aides sent to jail and seeks the council of someone whose ideas he formerly rejected, his rival Bergoglio. The two men meet, talk doctrine and just when it seems like they will never find common ground Pope Benedict reveals why he summoned the Argentinian cardinal. “The church needs change,” he says, “and you could be that change.” Because of health issues and controversy Pope Benedict wants to retire, to become the first Pope in 700 years to step down. “I can no longer sit on the chair of St. Peter,” he says. “I cannot play this role anymore.”
History fills in the rest of the details, so no spoilers here.
While we will never know the exact nature of the real conversations between the two, “The Two Popes” finds a compelling dynamic between them. The film’s opening moments is a highly spirited recreation of the race between the two candidates. It’s fast, crowded and showy but then, as we jump ahead in time, director Fernando Meirelles slows the pace down to focus attention on the conversations. The pleasure of “The Two Popes” is watching two very good actors create worlds with their monologues. The flashbacks, including an extended sequence that details Bergoglio’s regrets over the decisions he made during his country’s Dirty War in the 1970s, add backstory and detail, but this movie is at its best when it is at its simplest, unadorned and in conversation.