It feels like the wrong thing to emphasise about a film that’s essentially a two header, heavy with dialogue, theology, and character motivation, but what stood out for me about The Two Popes were the special effects.

Crazy, isn’t it?

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a film where the special effects were so integral to the telling of the tale. Certainly, the film primarily works because of the performances of the two leads; Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Price are so perfect in their roles. Yet what raises this to a different level is the world they inhabit. You will be convinced the entire thing was filmed in the Vatican. You will believe that the two men walked around the Sistine Chapel, that the conclave of Cardinals was a real conclave of Cardinals. This film, you guess, must have had help from Church authorities so they could use the actual locations.

Except it didn’t and it wasn’t.

And therein likes the problem. So successful were the effects teams that, watching it, you become absolutely convinced that you’re getting an inside read on the relationship between the two popes. And it is a fascinating relationship. Hopkins plays Joseph Ratzinger, known to friends and worshippers as Pope Benedict, a man overburdened by intellect but lacking that fizz that would make him likeable. He is troubled by this, it seems, almost as much as he’s lost the ability to hear God’s voice. Hopkins is not perfect, conveying a man wrestling with a personality crisis. Price, on the other hand, plays Cardinal Bergoglio, who would later become Pope Francis. He’s the complete opposite to Benedict: personable, human, and offering a version of Catholicism that’s progressive and worldly. Again, the performance is note-perfect but probably the easier role. Price just has to be likeable and likeable he is.

This sets up the main dynamic of the movie, which we saw play out in real life as Benedict resigned the papacy, claiming poor health, and Bergoglio became Francis, a pope after his namesake, devoted to humility, the poor, and ridding the church of the kinds of unwieldy baggage that Benedict enjoyed.

It’s all good stuff. Great even. It’s only afterwards that you realise that there’s no way of knowing what Pope Benedict really thinks about Pope Francis, though one might be certain it’s not quite the buddy/buddy relationship we see here. The film plays quite loose with facts, though apparently much of the dialogue uttered by the two men are their own words just taken from different contexts. None of that is to say the film isn’t worth watching, isn’t worthy of considerable praise, but, given the degree of fantasy, it ultimately feels like one of those movies (All The President’s Men, Spotlight, The French Connection) you end up watching wishing the real world was the world depicted here rather than the world that remains unknown out there.

Why did the former Ratzinger renounce the papacy? Did he really think that God had deserted him, suggesting that his conservatism was the wrong path for the Church? Was he really making room for the Cardinal Bergoglio? The Two Popes gives an answer and it’s a fascinating one. I’m just not sure it’s even remotely the real one.

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