Directed by Fernando Meirelles
Jonathan Pryce’s liberal Pope Francis eats pizza, buys coffee from street vendors, loves football and whistles ABBA’s Dancing Queen constantly. Anthony Hopkin’s more conservative Pope Benedict is compared to a Nazi, covers up sexual abuse charges against his bishops and drinks Fanta instead of wine with his dinner. Put these two men together to thrash out their differences in a series of locations including the Pope’s summer retreat, the Vatican and the incredible Sistine Chapel, and you have one of the most compelling and great cinematic duos of 2019. Pryce actually outshines Hopkins, stunningly. I was expecting the opposite. I was also, for some reason, expecting Pryce to be the villain of the piece (as much as anyone could appear villainous in this).
This will be landing in your laps on Netflix soon, but the beautiful Rome-based visuals deserve to be seen on the big screen, particularly some of the absolutely gorgeous overhead sweeping shots of the Vatican and the slums of Argentina. City Of God director Fernando Meirelles, no stranger to stories of poverty and suffering, perfectly captures the differences between the haves and the have nots. Alongside a fascinatingly insightful script from Anthony McCarten, he explores the way the Catholic Church has failed to evolve and look after those who most need it.
First of all, getting a glimpse into the process involved in electing a new Pope was enlightening and surprisingly tense. As a self-confessed Atheist that’s no mean feat to admit. But this is exemplary of a film which manages to make what could be tired old tropes, faith and belief, into a truly beautiful exploration of two men on opposing sides of the cloth. That they are both believers seems to be the only thing they share in common. This paves the way for some of the best dialogue I have heard all year. Their back-and-forth exchanges are fantastic to listen to, with compelling arguments put forward from both sides. It feels just like listening to two old men going at it in the ruins of Rome, except these are not just two old men, they are the elected Pope and potential replacement! I could have sat and listened to another two hours of them debating whether God can exist in human form, in music or in art, for example, or hear them conversing over the worthiness of The Beatles Yellow Submarine.
But the central argument at the heart of their stalemate is one of change over compromise. What Pope Benedict sees as changing and straying from Godliness, Pope Francis sees as compromising in order to keep the belief of the people. The use of flashbacks to show Pope Francis as a young man serve to underline why he seems so much more accepting and human in his devotion to Christ. His dalliances with love, his sacrificial choice to become part of a machine (the government) in order to try and protect his fellow priests, serves to really flesh out the man. This backstory helps understand exactly why he is reluctant to take on the Papal responsibility.
I’m fully aware that this is a very gentle version of what, in reality, would be a very harsh and deeply problematic exchange. There is a slight bluntness to it all. Conversations around gay marriage being legalised and the great conspiracy of the Pope to cover for child abusing priests gets short shrift, touched on like a tick-boxing exercise then quickly hushed up to avoid going too deep. I can only imagine any extended time spent on these topics would have only served to block access to some of the locations used for filming. That being said, grander conversations take place over the invention of religious conventions such as angels in the 5th century and priests not marrying in the 12th century. Catholicism is presented as under attack, not from outside agents, but rather from within. This inability to change and evolve.
It was both a fun and light film that dabbled with some very dark moments. Ultimately, how much you enjoy it will depend on your ability to deal with the most powerful religious leaders grappling with their faith and responsibility. As someone who thinks religion is one of the great evils of the world, I can humbly say that I was challenged, and softened, in my view of those who take up the cloth. Everyone has their reasons, their callings and we should not be as quick to judge as we are. As Hopkins’ Pope Benedict puts it, ‘God does not move, he is the truth he is the way’. But Pryce’s Pope Francis sees God as always moving and that the only way to find him is to journey, ‘You will find him along the way’. I certainly found these two men on the journey of this film. By the end I had walked with them both, understood them more and daresay grew to like them.