‘It was easier when everybody spoke Latin,” sighs Joseph Ratzinger, lamenting the good old days. There are only a few historical figures of the 21st century who could credibly speak this line, and Ratzinger is one of them.
You may recognize him better as Pope Benedict XVI, which explains the Latin reference. The whimsical dialogue is typical of “The Two Popes,” an absorbing film that scrutinizes a historical oddity: In 2013, for the first time in hundreds of years, a pope retired rather than remain in office until his death.
Which is why the world has two Popes today: the retired Benedict, and the incumbent Francis. The fact that these two Catholic leaders have very different ideologies and personalities gives “The Two Popes” an appeal that goes well beyond the historical.
The film is primarily about Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentinean cardinal who would become Pope Francis. We learn more about his background, especially in a long flashback that examines Bergoglio’s disputed role during Argentina’s “Dirty War” in the 1970s.
Still, most of the film focuses on a handful of meetings between the two men, meetings that will lead to Benedict’s revelation that he plans to renounce the papacy. Screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything”) doesn’t try to disguise the talky nature of these encounters. He embraces it.
It makes all the difference that the two men are played by virtuoso actors. Jonathan Pryce (whose recent great run includes the fatuous Nobel prize-winning author in “The Wife” and the deranged knight in Terry Gilliam’s “The Man Who Killed Don Quixote”) plays Francis, and Anthony Hopkins plays Benedict.
People love to say there are actors you’d listen to if even if they just read the phone book (a comment that stems from the days when there were phone books). Such is the case here, even a phone book in the original Latin.
Not only do Pryce and Hopkins have beautiful voices and well-honed technique, they also physically resemble the two popes. More importantly, they embody the differences between these strong personalities.
Pryce captures the warmth and humor of the South American, while Hopkins plays to Benedict’s more severe, Germanic style. It’s touching when Benedict marvels at Bergoglio’s ability to socialize. “This popularity of yours,” he asks wistfully, “is there a trick to it?”
Benedict represents the more conservative traditions of the Catholic Church; he also likes a certain amount of ceremonial bling. When the liberal-minded Francis comes into the papacy, he continues to ride the bus and wear his iron crucifix instead of the fancy gold one.
They each have pop-culture indulgences. Bergoglio loves soccer. Benedict has a weakness for a German TV series about a detective dog.
The contrasts keep the film interesting, and also provide a shorthand for the debates going on within the church. Director Fernando Meirelles, who made the supercharged 2002 film “City of God,” isn’t confident enough to let the material play on its own; he tries out various directorial tricks to liven things up.
“The Two Popes” doesn’t need any tricks. Despite its undeniably cornball moments, it gets by with the two strong actors and the Italian settings (including a lengthy walk and talk around the Sistine Chapel), as well as the unfamiliar spectacle of different perspectives finding common ground.
“The Two Popes” (3 stars)
Jonathan Pryce and Anthony Hopkins are wonderfully cast as popes Francis and Benedict XVI, respectively, in a study of the historic moment Benedict decided to become the first sitting pope to retire in hundreds of years. Not without its cornball moments, but the actors (and some literate talk) keep it interesting.
Rating: PG-13, for subject matter
Opening Friday: Crest theater; streaming on Netflix beginning Dec. 20.