Producers: Dan Lin, Jonathan Eirich and Tracey Seaward   Director: Fernando Meirelles   Screenplay: Anthony McCarten   Cast: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujin, Luís Grecco, Chrístína Banegas, María Ucedo, Renato Scarpa, Sidney Cole, Achille Brugnini, Federico Torre, Germán de Sílva, Lisandro Fíks, Willie Jonan and Nicola Acunzo   Distributor: Netflix

Grade:  B+

When Pope Benedict XVI resigned in 2013, it shocked not just Catholics but people of all faiths.  It didn’t set a precedent—a handful of popes had laid aside their office previously, perhaps the most notable being Celestine V, who stepped down having served for only a few months in 1294, after issuing a decree in advance declaring the legality of such an action.  But Benedict’s act was seen as a seismic shift, because he was a rigidly conservative traditionalist, and the man elected to succeed him, Jorge Cardinal Bergoglio, who took the name Francis, not only brought a spirit of humility and simplicity to the office but also seemed to promise progressive reform in church doctrine.

Whether Francis has delivered on that expectation is open to debate, but Anthony McCarten seizes on the idea that the transfer of power represented a major change of attitude, and first in his play and now in the screenplay adapted from it, he imagines a scenario explaining how it happened.  As directed by Fernando Meirelles with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce as Benedict and the future Francis, it makes for a master class in acting that’s also a cheeky exercise in historically-based speculation.

The question McCarten poses is simply this: what if in 2012 Bergoglio, who had been the runner-up to Cardinal Ratzinger, the future Benedict XVI, in the 2005 papal conclave (depicted here in a brief prologue), asked the pope for permission to resign his episcopal office?  And what if Benedict had asked him to come to Rome to discuss the matter?  What sort of conversation might they have had? 

The answer he provides is: one that begins rather stiffly, but ends in the two men becoming friends who agree to disagree in their approaches to dogma.  It also confirms Benedict in his decision to resign the papacy—and, it is implied, to throw his considerable support to Bergoglio as his successor.  (He’s come to believe, you see, that despite his concerns about the cardinal’s radical views, the church needs a change of attitude in leadership, from his stuffily scholarly mien to Bergoglio’s humble, good-naturedly friendly approach.)

Perhaps some of the factors that McCarten has confected to explain Benedict’s decision have a smidgen of truth to them; it’s impossible to say, since the emeritus pope has never opened up about them (relying on his health problems as the cause), and doubtlessly never will.  But his imaginings allow for a quasi-debate between the two men that has its deliciously impish moments (as when they share an impromptu meal behind the Sistine Chapel and even a brief farewell tango, and—at the very end—has them watching a soccer match together) while also leaving room for more serious matters. 

Those darker elements center on the men’s pasts.  Benedict’s formative years in Nazi Germany—and his membership in the Hitler Youth—are alluded to briefly.  But the major attention is given to Bergoglio’s actions as head of the Jesuit Order in Argentina during the years of brutal military rule, when he took an accommodating attitude toward the regime, going so far as to fail to stand up for more radical members of the Order, some of whom had been his mentors and friends.  Indeed, Bergoglio’s life as a young man, in which he is played by Juan Minujin, is portrayed in an extended flashback showing his abrupt choice of the priesthood over marriage to a woman he’s long loved, his calculatedly submissive negotiations with members of the ruling junta, and the years of penance (and criticism he received after being returned to a position of leadership in the Argentine church) after the restoration of civilian rule.

In his conversations with Benedict, in which he protests that a papal resignation would do terrible damage to the church, Bergoglio also emphasizes that his past actions disqualify him for consideration for the papacy.  Benedict disagrees, and the suggestion is that every candidate is bound to have something in his (or to be really radical, her) background that’s a sign of human imperfection. 

While McCarten embeds such significant concerns in the script, and Hopkins and Pryce (and Minujin as well) play them very well, what most viewers are likely to embrace are the lighter elements of Benedict and Bergoglio’s interaction—when they reveal their very different musical tastes, for example.  Both actors are superb throughout.  Hopkins embodies Benedict’s sense of isolation, his recognition of his own failings and his need for human contact, and Pryce exudes Bergoglio’s geniality in scenes with ordinary folk in Buenos Aires and Rome (and a papal gardener played by Nicola Acunzo) while showing the undercurrent of urgency in his opinions.  Their scenes together shift beautifully from graciousness to passion to anger to camaraderie to grudging mutual understanding; it’s like watching a vaudeville soft shoe routine impeccably performed.  Minujin is excellent as well, and the supporting cast is fine throughout.  Meirelles’ astute direction, aided by Cesar Charlone’s fluid cinematography and Fernando Stutz’s expert editing, ensures that what’s essentially a two-hander never feels staid or static. 

One also has to express admiration for Mark Tildesley’s production design, which recreates the Vatican remarkably well—including what amounts to a reproduction of the Sistine Chapel on a soundstage.  CGI is part of the process, of course, but the effect is completely convincing. 

Like Peter Morgan’s exercises in imaginative historical recreations, “The Two Popes” depends to a great extent on the quality of acting to persuade.  With Hopkins and Pryce, it’s at the highest possible level, and the result is both absorbing and enjoyable.