‘The Two Popes’ Soft-Pedals the Church’s Misdeeds

Just a Couple of Miter-Wearing Cuddlebears

I saw The Two Popes movie. On the surface, this appears to be a true-story film about Two Popes hanging out, talking, and drinking wine, before one Pope steps down and then the other Pope becomes The Real Pope. But the movie isn’t even close to true; the encounter between the Two Popes never actually happened.

THE TWO POPES ★★★ (3/5 stars)
Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Starring: Anthony Hopkins, Jonathan Pryce, Juan Minujín
Running time: 125 min


So what’s actually going on in The Two Popes? It’s essentially a two-actor play. Pope Benedict, played by Anthony Hopkins in full miterly grumble, has Pope Francis (an annoying Jonathan Pryce) up to the summer house so they can have the Catholic church equivalent of a Red State/Blue State argument over the dinner table.

In real life, Pope Benedict, also known as Joseph Ratzinger, had to step down from the Papacy, the first time this had happened in 750 years, because of his refusal to deal the Catholic Church’s ongoing pedophilia scandal. Pope Francis, born Jorge Mario Bergolio in Argentina, enjoys a good tango and once felt the love of a true lady back when Buenos Aires was in black and white.  While The Two Popes refuses to address pedophilia except in whispers, and dismisses Ratzinger’s alleged Nazi ties with a Papal wave, it finds itself caught up deep in Bergolio’s backstory. Maybe that’s not surprising. The director, Fernando Meirelles, is South American, having made the excellent favela potboiler City Of God, among other films.

Apparently, and I didn’t know this before the film, Bergolio provided ecclesiastical cover for the Argentine military junta back in the day. The Two Popes provides us with endless flashbacks of a Young Pope Francis, excellently played by Juan Minujín, having arguments with various parish priests about old Argentine political beefs. These probably matter a lot if you’re Argentinian but clearly weren’t enough to keep Francis out of the Pope Chair. But it does leave you thinking: which Pope actually had the Nazi ties?

Mereilles seems to think neither. His Popes are fallible/not fallible. The film portrays Benedict as a kind of Teutonic cuddlebumpkin who enjoys drinking Fanta and watching German shows about dogs who solve crimes. Francis, on the other hand, appears as a true Christ figure who gave it all up for God, learning to hate neoliberalism along the way. They have many conversations, forgive each other their sins, and then have a nice laugh and watch soccer.

On the one hand, The Two Popes lacks the pretension of HBO’s The Young Pope, which is now called The New Pope. There’s no imagined Pope sex or Pope nudity. Meirelles never floats an idea more radical that the Pope should care about the poor and the environment. There’s something sweet and old-fashioned about the writing, kind of like the play Love Letters, but between Two Popes.

However, why must we continue to worship the Papacy? The Catholic Church is the most rapacious institution in human history, rivaled only by the British monarchy, another bloated institution that we love to watch on TV. Did no one see Spotlight? Catholic priests are serial molesters, and the church has repeatedly covered up that crime. The Two Popes absolves it all with a little bit of pizza topped with a shake of brotherly love.

The Two Popes is clever, kind, and warm, and I’m sure your Catholic grandma will love it. The next time the white smoke goes up at the Vatican, people will cheer. And, thanks at least in part to The Two Popes, the Catholic church will get away with its many sins–again. It’s a liberal fantasy about a conservative institution that will get Oscar nominations because it contains Popes.

This concludes my review of The Two Popes movie.

I got Two Popes/One for my bitches and one for my hos. 

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Neal Pollack

Book and Film Globe Editor in Chief Neal Pollack is the author of 12 semi-bestselling books of fiction and nonfiction, including the memoirs Alternadad and Stretch, the novels Repeat and Downward-Facing Death, and the cult classic The Neal Pollack Anthology of American Literature. A Rotten Tomatoes certified reviewer for both film and television, Neal has written articles and humor for every English-language publication except The New Yorker. Neal lives in Austin, Texas, and is a three-time Jeopardy! champion.

5 thoughts on “‘The Two Popes’ Soft-Pedals the Church’s Misdeeds

  • January 10, 2020 at 1:20 pm

    This review hit the nail on the head when it comes to the problems with the movie – and made me laugh with the dry wit! Thank you for writing this. It serves as a good reminder to watch films with a more questioning, critical mind rather than mindlessly eating it all up.

  • January 11, 2020 at 1:09 am

    Really? This seems more like an anemic rant than an earnest review.

  • January 11, 2020 at 11:28 pm

    “Catholic priests are serial molesters” – This is not a logical nor fair statement unless Pollack has proof to show that ALL priests have committed sexual crimes. It’s like saying Hitler was a Nazi and a German. Germans are Nazi. What is he thinking?

    • January 11, 2020 at 11:53 pm

      I did not say that ALL priests have committed sexual crimes. But if the outrage grows–which is highly unlikely–I’m happy to amend my statement to SOME priests are serial molesters. That doesn’t change the general thrust of the review, which is that the movie hush-hushes the greatest scandal in the church’s long and scandal-filled history in favor of hagiography.


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