“The most glorious journey can begin with a mistake.” This is the observation made by Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio in the opening scene of Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, as he preaches to throngs of poor people in a Buenos Aires slum. It signals the central themes of the film: change, reconciliation, and hope for the future. The scene, shot on location in Argentina, surges with the energy of the people and the place. A kaleidoscope of color and activity soon settles into a moment of stillness and focused attention as Bergoglio speaks. He stands in the midst of all these people: not above them, but with them. And they are listening.
But what is the mistake? The first possible answer the film offers is that Bergoglio (played by Jonathan Pryce) has decided to resign from his position at the head of the church of Buenos Aires. He is tired and weary from the direction that the church is taking, and he wants out. As his repeated letters to Pope Benedict XVI go unanswered, he plans a trip to Rome to press the pope in person to let him retire.
Little does he know that, at the same time, Pope Benedict is contemplating his own resignation. What holds Benedict back from retirement, however, is his fear that Bergoglio might succeed him. In the 2005 conclave at which Benedict was elected, Bergoglio was a serious contender. The public forgot this fact during the conclave of 2013; many presumed that Bergoglio came out of nowhere. But the prospect of Bergoglio’s rise was not lost on Benedict. He kept an eye (and a file) on him. And he didn’t like what he saw: too much willingness to bend the rules and too little respect for tradition. Benedict comes to regard Bergoglio as his nemesis, someone with whom he disagrees so fundamentally that he fears what might happen to the church should the Argentine ascend to the Chair of Peter. Benedict (played by a fine Anthony Hopkins) decides to face his fears. Just as Bergoglio prepares to head to Rome, Benedict summons him for a face-to-face meeting—for his own purposes. “He must have gotten my letter after all,” Bergoglio mutters, not realizing there’s another agenda at play.
This is the stuff of comedy. And indeed The Two Popes is full of humorous bits, arising from the clash of opposites, thwarted expectations, and unexpected convergences. (One laugh-out-loud moment: the soundtrack accompanying the solemn entrance of the cardinals into the Sistine Chapel for the 2005 conclave suddenly blares strains of Abba’s “Dancing Queen.” A hat tip to Frédéric Martel?) Yet it is also a serious affair. The meeting between Benedict and Bergoglio becomes a three-day conversation over which the central drama of the film unfolds.
The first encounter between the two men takes place in a perfectly manicured garden at the pope’s summer residence—a sharp contrast with the rollicking streets of Argentina we’ve just seen. And of course this is a setup. All the clichés concerning the differences between the two popes come tumbling out. Benedict lives in regal isolation. He is stern, even censorious. He is concerned about protecting Tradition and Truth with a capital “T.” In a reminder that the indignities of old age are upon him, Benedict receives commands from his watch to “Keep moving” every time he pauses in his walk. Yet he’s clearly a tough old bird, and his strong will is on full display. Hopkins’s elderly pope knows that change is on the horizon, but he resists it with every fiber of his being.
Pryce’s Bergoglio is the perfect foil for all this. With wit and winsomeness, and aided by an uncanny resemblance to Francis, Pryce quickly helps establish the contrast between his character and Benedict. Bergoglio eschews luxury and lives simply. A true son of Argentina, he’s passionate about soccer and dances the tango. He enjoys his food. Most of all, he enjoys being with people. (At one point, Benedict arrives on the scene and is startled to find that Bergoglio has made friends with the gardener; together they are extolling the merits of oregano.) Throughout, and just as you would expect, Bergoglio wears clunky black shoes and carries his famous, scuffed black briefcase. The briefcase holds his resignation letter, which he will push under the nose of Benedict at every opportunity—a bit of stage business that grows more hilarious each time it is repeated (and it is repeated often). His dogged persistence in carrying out his mission is an indicator of his own strength of will. He does not bend easily.