It would seem to be something of a contradiction in terms to deliver a warm and whimsical drama about the leadership of the Catholic Church during some of its most tumultuous years but that’s exactly what Fernando Meirelles’ gently absorbing chronicle of this archly ceremonial game of Papal thrones.
Essentially a biographical film tracing the ordination of Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and his initial rival and eventual successor Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the meat of the movie takes place in the pivotal year of 2012, as Bergoglio (the future Pope Francis) requests permission to retire from Pope Benedict who is, himself, wrestling with a dilemma of faith and duty.
Much of the story is told through (largely fictionalised) conversations between Bergoglio and Benedict at the pope’s summer home as they clash on matters theological, political and even international sports. To their mutual surprise, they find that despite their rivalry – coming from very different factions of the Church – they have more in common than either suspected.
While the film isn’t afraid to touch on the scandals and problems which have plagued the church in recent years, and pose hard questions about its two lead characters, it’s much more interested in the papal pair as individual human beings, taking a sensitive and often amusing look at the trials and tribulations of leadership and the spiritual toll it can take to serve an often silent and inscrutable God and works as a fascinating character study regardless of your own personal faith or beliefs.
It benefits enormously from two deceptively effortless, brilliant performances from Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins. In many ways, Pryce has the easier of the two roles, with Pope Francis’ innate likeability bringing the viewer onside from the off but it’s a credit to Hopkins’ wonderfully nuanced and impishly intelligent portrayal that manages to bring both humanity and humility to the more foreboding figure of Pope Benedict as the two warily circle each other in an ongoing, delicately choreographed verbal sparring match.
By turns touching, poignant, pugnacious and illuminating, it’s a remarkable exercise in exploring the power and politics at the highest levels of the Vatican through the lenses of the lives of two very different men.