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‘The Two Popes’ Film Review: Fernando Meirelles’ Superb Papal Biopic Devotes Itself to Humanity

Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce bring soul and wit to their roles as dueling pontiffs

Anyone dreading discord over a holiday table can take faith from Fernando Meirelles’ superb, open-hearted acknowledgment of theological divisions. If the diametrically different leaders in “The Two Popes” can find common ground, surely there’s hope for us all.

At first, the schisms in Meirelles’ biopic appear insurmountably deep. We’re brought right into Vatican City in 2005, where a successor must be chosen immediately after the death of Pope John Paul II. As anxious crowds and impatient media buzz together outside, the genial papal conclave looks much like any back-room dealing. There’s campaigning, glad-handing, even a little gossip. The best politician, everyone agrees, is Germany’s Cardinal Ratzinger, who is soon to be known as Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). But even he notices that Argentina’s Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) earned nearly as many votes, despite espousing a markedly different approach.

Seven years later, Bergoglio travels back to Italy in order to submit his resignation to the Pope. Oddly, though, he’s rebuffed. Once Benedict accepts the resignation, their time together will end. And for reasons that aren’t immediately clear, he wants to keep the conversation going.

This is confusing to the extroverted, empathetic Bergoglio, since the stern Benedict often seems angry or impatient. He can’t understand the relatively liberal leanings of the younger man, at one point announcing in frustration, “I disagree with everything you’ve said!” And yet he continues, trying to process how Bergoglio can reject the dogma that forms the unshakable core of his own calling.

Given that the film and its title are inspired by actual events, it would be no spoiler to reveal where this path is leading. But there is so much artistry in the unexpected ways the journey is plotted that viewers ought to experience them firsthand.

Among the many surprises is how lightly Meirelles (“City of God”) treads on this sacred ground. There’s a great deal of gentle humor (popes eat pizza!) and a few fanciful touches (popes love ABBA!). Sometimes, in its cheekiest moments, the movie feels more like a Nanni Moretti movie than a Fernando Meirelles one. But the base on which he and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“Darkest Hour”) build the story is one of reverence.

An utterly sincere awe illuminates this film, from every angle. Meirelles clearly has great respect for Benedict and especially Bergoglio, as well as their spirituality and the church to which they’ve devoted their lives. But he’s equally enamored of ordinary humanity: the intellect that allows men to debate, the conscience that leads them to compromise, and the humility that spurs them to change.

Most of all, he seems enthralled by the instinct that inspires men to express their emotions and devotions in great art. (Liberal as Bergoglio may be, there are still few women in this world.) This is, undoubtedly, one of the most beautiful movies of the year, an achievement made all the more remarkable considering that the stunning Sistine Chapel scenes were shot in a painstakingly created replica at Rome’s Cinecitta Studios.

Meirelles and his outstanding longtime cinematographer, César Charlone, embrace the grace of ritual with an almost giddy passion. Vividly-shot papal regalia helps define the men’s natures, with one requiring pomp and one shunning it. Simple traditions take on world-changing meaning, as when the election of a new pope is conveyed via a plume of smoke. And manmade structures credibly reflect the divine, from a hand-laid tile floor to a celestially-painted ceiling.

Meirelles uses other tools to acknowledge man’s fallen nature, most notably in the extensive flashbacks showing Bergoglio’s controversial, and life-altering, connection to the military junta during Argentina’s Dirty War. (An excellent Juan Minujín plays Bergoglio as a young man.) He has more trouble handling the Church’s dire sexual abuse scandals, addressing the subject directly but too gingerly. Skeptics are likely to wish he had indulged a bit less in sentimentality, while considering more deeply both men’s fallibility. The faithful, in contrast, may be offended that he recognizes that fallibility at all.

Even so, everyone here is working on an unusually high level. McCarten’s screenplay is adroit and intelligent, turning history into a mystery that he then solves himself. And it works, of course, because Hopkins and Pryce — the latter deserves a long-overdue Oscar nomination — are at their very best, humanizing these iconic figures to a remarkable degree. They not only capture each unexpected and subtle mood, but do so in four different languages (including Latin).

The way in which tradition and progress convene amid such challenging circumstances becomes Meirelles’ tribute to his subjects. The fact that we fully believe in this apparent impossibility feels like his gift to us.

“The Two Popes” premieres Dec. 20 on Netflix.