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Directors of For Sama

Lulu Wang (The Farewell)
Ritesh Batra (Photograph)
Schmidt & Abrantes (Diamantino)
Wanuri Kahiu (Rafiki)
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TIFF: "The Two Popes" is a Gentle Giant

by Chris Feil

Late in Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes, Jonathan Pryce’s Cardinal Bergoglio (who would eventually become the current Pope Francis) throws up his arms in befuddlement and spouts “Two popes?!” That kind of winning self-aware wit flows throughout the film, an unexpectedly comedic chamber piece that thrusts Pryce opposite Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XVI. Theirs is a gentle battle of minds as the film plays out mostly through several meetings between the two, with Bergoglio the somewhat progressive mind pushing for change in the Catholic church and Benedict adhering to stasis and tradition.

This duet of performances finds both actors providing some of their best work in quite some time, each with a rich well of emotional intelligence towards their characters and their scene partner. Pryce is incredibly warm as the future Pope Francis, generating his joy with uncanny familiarity but especially his sudden traditionalist contradictions. As Pope Benedict, Hopkins is pensive with widening cracks in his convictions, favoring a beautifully subtle progression of awareness rather than grand gestures. And both are often gaspingly funny while maintaining the film’s softer tone. There will certainly be flashier Best Actor options this year, but perhaps not as many that operate on as many levels as Pryce and Hopkins do here.

Meirelles makes a film about disparate perspectives coming together and hashing out what might be irreconcilable between them, perhaps one of the more soothing examples of a film reconciling with our growing inability to speak to one another in modern times. It’s drama comes from communication and devotion to unity enacting personal growth - or at least getting out of the way to prevent further institutional harm. Luckily, the film doesn’t patronize or reduce to hackneyed Greater Good maudlinism of lesser films (even some at this very festival). Yet the film is also smart enough to know that you cannot talk about the institution as a monolith without a sense of history, both in its unforgivable mistakes and its ancient pageantry.

Personal history is also significant to the larger cultural healing as Meirelles paints Popes, but it stumbles over extended flashbacks that halt the film’s lovely and engaging energy. Detailing Bergoglio’s lingering guilt over his decisions during political unrest decades prior, the sequences feel like a bit overlong downshift. Sometimes the film forgets that its relationship and active dialogue is what really makes it special, also turning out multiple unnecessary endings that miss a perfect comedic opportunity. But when the film really surprises, it has an infectious, subtle joy loaded with personal grace and often pop-inflected humor. It's been one of the more subdued films of this festival but one of the most deeply felt.

The Two Popes is an uncommonly delicate film that sinks deep despite that it is ultimately about introspection and the importance of listening to affect self-growth. Meirelles is generous and curious with his subject, crafting something from Anthony McCarten’s wordy screenplay (easily the Oscar nominee’s finest accomplishment) that still feels intimately cinematic. Though not at all as hokey as it sounds, the film begs for thoughtful responsibility with how we consider the personal, the political, and the spiritual within ourselves and our world - no person is an island serving all three at once. Not even our popes. Both of them. B

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Reader Comments (12)

Justice for Pryce after last year's snub!!!!!!!!

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I never understood his lack of traction last year,here's hoping Hopkins gives us something and by the sound of it he does as he certainly hasn't been good in a long long time.

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

Frankly I'm a little stunned that this film is getting such fantastic reviews. This subject matter easily could've been mishandled (or just handled awkwardly), so it's a relief that the outcome is good. (I had this tagged as a likely festival bomb, à la carte The Goldfinch.)

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Frankly I'm a little stunned that this film is getting such fantastic reviews. This subject matter easily could've been mishandled (or just handled awkwardly), so it's a relief that the outcome is good. (Wow, I had this tagged as a likely festival bomb, à la The Goldfinch.)

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

Curious about your thoughts on its genre re: Golden Globes classification. Reviews talk about the film's humor, and some are reading that means it is a Comedy at the Globes. Would you agree that it belongs in the Comedy category?

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterrlk I the only one who hopes a rabbi makes an appearance and that they all walk into a bar?

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

I heard awesome things about this film and I want to see. Especially as someone who really likes Pope Francis. He's awesome.

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Never expected this film to be good. Will add to my list of must see.

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPedro

Expressions like "a more progressive catholic church" always sounds to me like irony or cynicism.

September 11, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterFeline Justice

Nathaniel, get ready to be enraged about Anthony's placement in "Supporting" for this two-hander. Category fraud needs to stop!

September 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael R

There may be two popes, but ostensibly Pryce is the "top" (leading) and Hopkins is the "bottom" (supporting). Oy. So silly.

September 13, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMareko

What Pryce actually is playing Francis in a film? I recall people joking she should years ago!

September 14, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterChinoiserie

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