When Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles signed on to direct Netflix’s “The Two Popes,” he knew he’d have his work cut out for him. The film dramatizes a series of thorny theological discussions between Pope Benedict XVI and the future Pope Francis over Catholic doctrine and the role of the church in a changing world. Not exactly the type of cinematic razzle-dazzle that tends to grab today’s attention-challenged audiences.
“My son even created a commercial for it,” Meirelles says, slipping into the mock-dramatic tone of a movie trailer announcer. “‘Two old men ... sitting and talking ... about religion.’” He laughs. “Very exciting.”
Fortunately for Meirelles, who is best known for his Oscar-nominated work on the acclaimed 2002 crime film “City of God,” he had one major ace up his sleeve: Those old men would be played by two of the most renowned actors alive, Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce.
Now playing in limited release before hitting Netflix’s streaming service on Dec. 20, “The Two Popes” traces the story of how the Argentine Cardinal Bergoglio ascended to the papacy following the surprise resignation of the German-born Benedict in 2013 amid criticism of his handling of the church’s sexual abuse scandal. The film has drawn strong reviews, with critics praising it for bringing a sense of humanity to a world that has long been shielded behind walls of secrecy and traditions stretching back centuries.
With Pryce as the genial, liberal-leaning Francis and Hopkins as the taciturn, conservative Benedict, “The Two Popes” becomes not just an exploration of the Catholic Church in a moment of transition and crisis but, by the end, an improbable and touching sort of buddy comedy — "The Odd Couple” with long white robes and Bible passages.
Following the film’s successful runs at the Telluride and Toronto film festivals, Oscar prognosticators have declared Pryce and Hopkins strong contenders in this year’s lead actor and supporting actor races, respectively, while the film itself is considered to have a shot at a best picture nod. Hopkins, who won the lead actor prize in 1992 for “The Silence of the Lambs,” waves off that sort of speculation. “I can’t be bothered to think about stuff like that,” he says, adding with almost papal sagacity, “My philosophy is: Ask nothing, expect nothing, but accept everything.”
Pryce, 72, and Hopkins, 81, who are both from Wales, have portrayed real-life leaders before; Pryce played King James in the 2005 historical drama “The New World,” while one of Hopkins’ four Oscar nominations came for his starring turn in Oliver Stone’s 1995 biopic “Nixon.” But embodying someone who bears the title His Holiness and is charged with guiding the souls of a significant portion of the world’s population comes with its own special sense of responsibility. “It does have an effect,” Hopkins says of putting on the papal robes. “I looked in the mirror and I thought, ‘God, this really feels extraordinary.’”
The unique power of the role was brought home to Pryce while filming a Mass in front of hundreds of locals in a poor neighborhood in Buenos Aires. “Some of the small children there thought I was the pope, and twice it happened that young women brought their babies up asking to be blessed,” he says. “Fortunately, the real priest stepped in and said, ‘It’s OK — I’ll do it.’ You don’t know where that baby is going to end up if you give him a fake blessing. But all of that added to the authenticity of the thing.
“When you play a fictitious character you can muck about, but when I was dressed as the pope I didn’t make pope jokes,” he adds. “I would do the odd blessing to the crew but I definitely had the feeling of respect for the office.”
While “The Two Popes” presents itself as a rare peek behind the papal curtain, in reality not much is known of what transpired in the three meetings between Benedict and Bergoglio during the period covered in the film. Drawing on extensive research, screenwriter Anthony McCarten, who has earned Oscar nominations for his work on “The Theory of Everything” and “Darkest Hour,” set out to imagine what the two may have discussed, humanizing them with details he discovered along the way, such as Benedict’s love of the soft drink Fanta and Francis’ passion for soccer.
“For me to responsibly speculate, I did a lot of research on their stated positions: newspaper articles, stuff translated from foreign languages, many books, YouTube clips, documentaries,” McCarten says. “The artifice here is that I put these two voices in dialogue with each other and built this papal smackdown, this argument between a conservative and a liberal.”
Early iterations of the project — which was initially titled “The Pope” and focused far more on Francis — had a clearer delineation between “the bad pope and the good pope,” as Meirelles puts it. But over time, the debate between Francis and Benedict became more even-handed and balanced.
“As a dramatist you have to love your characters equally,” McCarten says. “The interesting discovery for me was that, in learning to love Benedict — which was more of a stretch because my politics more naturally aligns with Francis — I began to respect Benedict’s position and see a strength in it that I hadn’t formerly seen.”
Pryce, who is neither Catholic nor religiously observant, was initially drawn to the project out of his own admiration for Pope Francis. “Like a lot of people, I felt a great empathy with Francis, saying what he was saying about society and climate change and the refugee crisis and building bridges not walls,” says the actor, who may be best known to many younger viewers for playing a far more sinister religious leader, the High Sparrow in “Game of Thrones.” The fact that he bears a rather uncanny resemblance to Francis was a happy coincidence. (“The day Francis was made pope, the Internet was full of images of the two of us together. One of my sons called me and said, ‘Dad, are you the pope?’”)
To prepare for the role, Pryce learned as much Spanish as he could. But in the end, Meirelles decided to dub the majority of the actor’s Spanish dialogue with a native speaker. “Jonathan has an English accent and for Latin America it wouldn’t be acceptable to have the pope speaking with a bit of an English accent,” the director says.
For his part, Hopkins was fascinated by the complexity of Benedict, who is depicted in the film as caught between his belief in the supremacy of the church’s traditional values and his private sense of his own fallibility. “He has the wisdom and the knowledge to understand that he’s certainly not perfect,” Hopkins says. “It must have crossed his mind many times, ‘I don’t know everything.’ We are puny little creatures. We think we’re smart but we’re not at all.”
Asked what kind of research he did for the role, Hopkins scoffs cheerfully. “I don’t research,” he says. “I saw photographs and bits of documentary films. But it wasn’t difficult for me to play old because I am old. Acting for me has become dead easy. I don’t sweat it. People want to make it complicated so it’s painful. Fine, if that’s what they believe, but it’s not brain surgery. It’s quite easy if you relax into it.”
While it remains to be seen how major an Oscar player “The Two Popes” may be, McCarten says he is surprised at the degree to which it has resonated with audiences so far. “For a kind of niche movie, who knew?” he says. “I mean, it’s a pretty big niche: 1.4 billion Catholics. Still, it’s two old men in frocks talking about God.”
He suspects the explanation can be found in the film’s message of tolerance for conflicting viewpoints, no matter how deeply held or diametrically opposed.
“Like a couple of prizefighters, these two kind of punch themselves out and then they fall silent, and that silence allows for forbearance and they start to work their way toward a middle position,” McCarten says. “I think if there’s anything people are responding to about the film, it’s the sense that that’s still achievable. We live in a time when people have almost despaired of that ever being possible again. If compromise can be found between these two camps, maybe there’s hope for us all.”