At the Middleburg Film Festival this year, The Two Popes was my top pick and if that’s any indication, it will win the Oscar. My favorites won the last two years. This sure to be a crowd pleaser is a somewhat imagined tale of the friendship that developed between the most recent Popes, Benedict and Francis, after beginning as rivals, and stars two actors at the top of their game — Anthony Hopkins as Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Francis. And it’s by turns warm and funny and heartfelt. A total delight.

The story begins in 2005 as the Vatican is abuzz with wrangling for the election of a new Pope after the death of John Paul II. The red robed cardinals are all sequestered and there’s some serious politicking going on. And it appears that Cardinal Ratzinger (Hopkins) is the front-runner for the position. But the first vote is a toss-up between him and the Argentine Jesuit Cardinal Bergoglio (Pryce). The two men could not be more different. Ratzinger is a very conservative man and feels he deserves the seat, while Bergoglio is the epitome of a liberal priest ministering to the poor and needy, and is surprised by the attention he’s gotten. But after four ballots, Ratzinger is elected and becomes Pope Benedict XVI.

Fast forward eight years and Bergoglio is back in Argentina and wants to retire. He’s written to the Pope, but gotten no reply, so he decides to go to Rome to press his case. Meanwhile the church is in the middle of a scandal involving the Pope’s handling of sex abuse and the Vatican treasury, and the Pope has hidden himself away from it all at the summer palace. But the two men do meet, and as different as they are in terms of how they see the future of the Church, and despite their history, they become confessors for one another and true friends. And by the end, Benedict has resigned and the reluctant Cardinal Bergoglio has become today’s Pope Francis.

It’s a very humorous and human film, graced by incredible actors who play amazingly well off one another. I’m not sure how true a lot of it is, since I doubt there were transcripts of their meetings. It’s is written by Anthony McCarten whose previous films (Bohemian Rhapsody, The Darkest Hour) wouldn’t have led me to hope for this wonderful script. But it’s a must see! Though set within the Church, it’s not really about religion as much as it is about coming to terms with oneself and the human condition. I can’t recommend this one enough!

[Mainstream Chick’s take: I liked The Two Popes, but not as much as Arty Chick. I don’t see it winning Best Picture, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Pryce (and possibly Hopkins) in the mix for Best Actor. The performances are excellent and the story interesting, but I felt the film lost some of its momentum when it diverted from the immersive dialogue between the two men to flashbacks of a tumultuous time in 1970s Argentina. It then became a more lopsided exploration of Bergoglio’s conflicted past. It’s obviously rare to have a film that allows us to be a fly on the wall (or in the garden) as two living Popes pontificate about all that bonds and separates them. So for that – and the performances – I second the recommendation, albeit with less exuberance. -hb]


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