There’s been plenty of criticism of the lowest common denominator programming on Netflix; from Bright to The Ridiculous Six, there’s often a pervasive, musty aroma of a bottom drawer project that no-one else wanted. Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes is quite a different kind of animal, a carefully wrought adaptation of Anthony McCarten’s play about the changing of the guard in the Vatican. As a roman a clef, it bears more of a resemblance to The Crown in that it features a decidedly populist view of historical events; while hardly worth faking a box-office run for, it should do Netflix no harm to demonstrate that yes, they can generate genuinely meaningful content.
Let’s be honest, here, a lot of the fun of The Two Popes is in the margins. Did you know that Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) was a huge fan of Kommisar Rex, a tv show about a crime-fighting dog? Were you aware that his successor, Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce) would drink Fanta and eat pizza with him like a couple of home-boys while they plotted the future of the Catholic Church? A funny end-sequence has them on the couch watching football; the de-mythologising of the papal home-life is a big part of the appeal here. An opening sequence, in which Francis whistles Abba’s Dancing Queen seeps into an orchestral version that provides a surprising and irreverent soundtrack to the initial selection of Benedict as Pope.
Meireilles hasn’t done too much to open up the play; the beautiful backdrops at the pope’s retreat and at the Vatican provide much to engage the eye while two great actors bring the popes to life. This is a two-hander piece much like Volker Schlöndorff’s excellent 2016 film Diplomacy, with vivid flashbacks to Francis’ struggles as a young man in Argentina. Both Hopkins and Pryce give big, relish-able performances as quite different men, and the script never lets sight of the weight that both men suffer from a deep sense of despair at their church’s failure to act over internal abusers.
The Two Popes has surprised many by coming straight out of the traps to secure Golden Globe nominations; given the pedigree of the cast and director, it’s certainly in the running for awards attention. Perhaps it’s too wordy and worthy for pop-corn-swilling crowds, but it’s an excellent, thoughtful film, and it would be nice to think that it may well end up with a higher competition rate than Roma or The Irishman; it’s a tighter, more disciplined film that either of these prestige pictures. If nothing else, it’s a great start to Netflix’s Papal Cinematic Universe, (PCU) with plenty of other key figures ripe for Pope-sploitation.