Netflix's film The Two Popes starts with one Pope, Pope John Paul II. He was head of the Catholic Church from 1978 to 2005, a good long run, third longest, in fact, in nearly 2000 years. When he died, the Cardinals assembled to find their new leader, which involves a specific set of rituals. There's white smoke, there's black smoke, and everyone's wearing red. To the devout, a new Pope is as close as a living human comes to being divine. He (always a he) is in direct lineage with St.Peter, and once he is announced, he becomes infallible.
In reality, the assembled Cardinals who vote are still just people, albeit ones who can recite Bible passages from memory. There's favoritism, there's politicking. A likely conservative candidate who really wants the job is Cardinal Ratzinger of Germany (Anthony Hopkins). There are others, particularly reformers, many of whom do not come from Europe, who have their eye on Cardinal Bergoglio of Argentina instead, mainly because he is righteous enough to not want the position.
Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) is immediately set up as the "good guy." He books his own flights, he whistles ABBA while visiting the toilet, he has changed (or is it compromised?) his opinion about homosexuality as a sin. Naturally, it's Ratzinger who becomes elected Pope. All the Cardinals go home and, in time, Bergoglio, beloved though he is by his local flock, decides he wants to retire.
This requires sign off by the Pope, however, and Benedict XVI (as Ratzinger is now known) won't respond to his requests. Begoglio flies to Rome and, with all this backstory (and actual news clips) over with, we sink our teeth into what makes this film worth watching: an adapted stageplay between two spectacular actors.
Hopkins represents the old and Pryce the new, and while the two men are in disagreement on everything under the sun, there is a respect and civility between them that is positively quaint. The two parry on religious doctrine in a garden, then schmooze by a piano after supper (and even watch videos of American jazz musician Thelonious Monk). The Pope will not authorize the Cardinal's retirement because everyone knows that Bergoglio is pushing for reform. If he leaves, it will be interpreted as an act of defiance. It's some 5th-dimensional chess the Pope is playing; in order to stay strong he must keep his greatest critic aboard.
But before this meet-up concludes, Bergoglio gets into Pope Benedict's head. The Church must adapt to the times, or it will become irrelevant. Cut to later (and another lengthy tête-à-tête in a re-created Sistine Chapel) and Benedict has landed on an unexpected conclusion. He wants to abdicate his position, something almost unheard of in Roman Catholicism, and have Bergoglio take over.
More theological discussion commences (Bergoglio argues that to suffer in an unwanted position will bring the Pope closer to Christ) but he's got his mind made up.
While this is hardly action cinema, it is all extremely watchable if this sort of behind-the-robes story is your cup of sacramental wine. There are also some undeniably remarkable performances going on. Unfortunately, the film takes a dead stop with a lengthy and tedious flashback.
When Bergoglio demurs the offer, he confesses his sin; in Argentina during the 1970s, fascist governments took power, and the Cardinal was perhaps too cozy with them. The film suggests that he merely "did what he had to do" to save lives, but it blazes by at supersonic speed, perplexing anyone who isn't too schooled in this corner of world history. (Allow me to sheepishly raise my hand and call myself out here.) A volley of confessions between the two men continues, with Bergoglio discussing his time making amends for his politics, and Benedict admitting he did not do enough (or anything, really) dealing with the Catholic sex abuse crisis.
None of this is really resolved in the film, but director Fernando Meirelles (City of God, The Constant Gardener) and screenwriter Anthony McCarten (Bohemian Rhapsody), adapting his own play, keep their focus on "two flawed men trying to do what is right." It ends with lots of jokes (pizza! orange soda! The World Cup!) that is agreeable and fun because Hopkins and Pryce are terrific. Admittedly, if I had a more personal connection to aforementioned scandals swept under the rug, perhaps I'd be seeing red.
For a Netflix production, The Two Popes feels like maybe it was their Oscar-bet safety school. The Irishman was a gigantic production with risky special effects and Marriage Story could have been a swing-and-a-miss. This juicy yarn (it's quite similar to The Queen, but swap out the Monarchy with the Church!) is a prestige picture on intelligent themes with two classy leads and a respected international director. It is strong, but it isn't absolutely essential. There's much to admire, but should you end up giving it a skip it doesn't merit going to confession.
TV Guide Rating: 3.5/5
(A previous version of this story incorrectly had Tim Surette as the author of the review. That was Tim's bad and he's very sorry.)
The Two Popes premieres Friday, Dec. 20 on Netflix.