115 priests wander the Vatican as the Gregorian chant drowns out their conversations. What they are discussing is obvious: A new pope must be picked by the end of the day. But what’s less obvious is a tune being whistled in the bathroom. “What is that hymn?” Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) asks. “It’s ‘A Dancing Queen'” Francis (Richard Pryor) replies with a smile. Whether or not these two popes actually met in the men’s room doesn’t really matter. When we are anointed with scenes this entertaining, facts become as obsolete as the Latin language.
The heart of the story is true, of course. Pope Benedict XVI (Hopkins) resigned so Pope Francis (Pryor) could take over the Catholic Church. Never had a Pope stepped down from his balcony, and never had a Pope been as popular–or liberal– as Francis. Director Fernando Mierelles resurrects the two weeks leading up to the papacy by following the pair as they spar theologies.
In one corner is Benedict. He’s lonely, with an Old Testament view on politics. In the other corner is Francis. He’s lively, with an understanding of the changing world, as well as its opinion of the church’s dated beliefs. The two walk through sprawling churches and lush gardens, and the camera peers through steeples and vines, giving these moments a fly-on-the-wall vibe.
For all its talk on touchy subjects (molestation and prognostication), Mierrelles’ film has the feel of a buddy comedy. There’s something delightfully warm about these two, in the way they respect each other and make each other laugh. At night Benedict plays the piano for Francis, while in the day these two chug Fanta and take helicopter rides over Rome.
What makes these two so endearing are the performances. Hopkins brings charm to the hard-nosed Benedict, his vindication for the rule book understandable. Yet Pryce has the role that will be nominated. He is fun when he needs to be, but his weary past doesn’t let him stay happy for long. Plus, he just looks like Francis, which the Academy loves.
Also impressive is the look of the picture. Rome’s Cinecitta studio financed a set for the Sistine Chapel that is biblical in scale. What struck me more than the set designs, however, was Meirelles’ inspirations. Flashback sequences to bombed out buildings recall Roberto Rossesllini’s war trilogy. The two cracking jokes will remind viewers of Adam McKay’s recent comedies about serious subjects. And the long, contemplative walks play like Eric Rohmer, minus the sex. Meirelles has reformed the historical drama in a way that makes going to church entertaining. “The Two Popes” is a blessing to us all.