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Anthony Hopkins, left, plays Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, soon-to-be Pope Benedict, and Jonathan Pryce is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, eventually Pope Francis.

Peter Mountain/Netflix

  • The Two Popes
  • Directed by Fernando Meirelles
  • Written by Anthony McCarten
  • Starring Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce
  • Classification PG; 125 minutes

rating

In 2013, in a move unprecedented since the 15th century, the conservative Pope Benedict retired, leading to the election of his reformist rival, the current Pope Francis. So, can we agree no spoiler alert is required to reveal that The Two Popes culminates in the handover of pontifical power? In one of those instances where knowing the outcome only heightens the suspense, this gripping fiction inspired by actual events at the Vatican speculates on why and how Benedict and Francis made their arrangement to save the church.

With a smart script by Anthony McCarten and nimble direction from Fernando Meirelles, The Two Popes is mainly an intense two-hander, a chamber piece in which two conflicting personalities ultimately resolve their differences. Its almost theatrical intensity – you could imagine the core of this film as a play – succeeds thanks to a pair of superbly crafted performances from two aging veterans still working at the height of their artistic powers: Anthony Hopkins plays Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, soon-to-be Pope Benedict, and Jonathan Pryce is Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, eventually Pope Francis. The piece is also, for crucial reasons of backstory, a tidily executed, if less engaging, historical drama set during Argentina’s Dirty War in the 1970s.

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The story is largely told from Bergoglio’s point of view. It begins in his hometown of Buenos Aires, where Bergoglio is a soccer-loving archbishop with the common touch, shown here giving hope and comfort to devoted crowds. When Pope John Paul II dies, he travels to Rome where reformers want him elevated to the papacy as the first non-European pope in centuries. But the humble Bergoglio has no such ambition and his supporters are no match for the manoeuvring of Cardinal Ratzinger, the Catholic Church’s great doctrinal enforcer who is duly elected Pope Benedict.

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The two actors delight in screenwriter Anthony McCarten's rapid fire dialogue and subtle wit.

Peter Mountain/Netflix

Eight years later Bergoglio only wants to retire from his bishopric and return to some small parish: He’s disheartened by a church that refuses to live in the modern world or do right by victims of clerical sexual abuse. But summoned to Rome for an audience with Benedict, he finds a sharp figure unwilling to sign off on his resignation and risk him becoming a martyr for reform.

The two men spar elegantly in these scenes, the actors delighting in McCarten’s rapid-fire dialogue and subtle wit, returning repeatedly to the joke that Bergoglio has a sense of humour but Benedict does not.

Yet underneath their strong doctrinal disagreements, Bergoglio discovers a sad figure exhausted by Vatican scandals and burdened by solitude, and it is here that Hopkins really comes into his own, gradually creating sympathy for a fierce but isolated leader trapped in a role he can no longer fulfill. Meanwhile, Benedict spies in the Argentine reformer the possibility of an answer for himself and the church, and he begins once again to scheme.

Now, it’s Bergolio’s turn to refuse: He cannot be pope. To understand his reluctance, we move into flashbacks to the 1970s when he was the head of the Jesuit order in Argentina as his activist priests were being arrested by the military dictatorship.

Hopkins makes Benedict, the arch traditionalist, admirable if not likable.

Peter Mountain/Netflix

Now, director Meirelles flits elegantly between Rome in the present and Argentina 40 years earlier – and between black-and-white for Bergoglio’s youth in the 1950s and colour for the dark days of the 1970s. The Argentine star Juan Minujin gives a major assist here as the dapper young man struggling to find his vocation hardens into the ambivalent figure trying to negotiate with the junta. Nonetheless, it is the present that really grabs the attention and we return to it with anticipation.

Creating a watery-eyed old man who loves his food and his people, Pryce crafts a figure of great humanity, making Bergoglio’s humility legitimate and profoundly touching. Hopkins’s Benedict, meanwhile, is piercingly sharp despite his stooped posture and deliberate speech, and the actor ultimately makes the arch traditionalist admirable if not likeable. Their final faceoff is beautifully modulated – again with flashes of humour as the archbishop introduces the pope to takeout pizza – and deeply revealing of their shared religious conviction.

Film is a visual, tangible medium, a hard place to make something as invisible and ineffable as faith seem real let alone important. See Martin Scorsese’s unconvincing Silence or Paul Schrader’s dour First Reformed for recent evidence of the challenge. Yet here, not merely Vatican politics but also Catholic faith are satisfyingly dramatic. Whether you’re a believer or not, you can’t doubt The Two Popes.

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The Two Popes opens Nov. 29 in Toronto; Dec. 6 in Ottawa and Montreal; Dec. 13 in Vancouver, Calgary, Edmonton, Winnipeg, and Victoria; and Dec. 20 on Netflix

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