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'The Two Popes' review: Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce give two of the year's finest performances

Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins

Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis and Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict in Netflix's "The Two Popes."  Credit: Netflix/Peter Mountain

THE MOVIE "The Two Popes"

WHEN|WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

After its brief, limited theatrical run, “The Two Popes” starts streaming Friday on Netflix.

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the future Pope Francis II, is summoned to the Vatican for a meeting with Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins). It’s 2012 and the cardinal, having trouble sensing where his humanist approach fits into the modern Catholic Church, is seeking permission to retire and serve as a simple parish priest. Over the course of an extended conversation that lasts several days, the longtime theological rivals become better acquainted with each other and Bergoglio learns the true reason the pope will not accept his depature from the church: his impending retirement.

MY SAY “The Two Popes” belongs to the rich cinematic tradition of the two-hander, in which quiet conversations and subtle moments serve to elucidate the complex depths of the soul. That it pulls off what can be a difficult endeavor is only more impressive considering that the characters are a current and future pope at a moment of profound crisis, rather than friends at a cafe (“My Dinner with Andre”) or romantic lovers (“Before Sunrise”). The stakes in telling this story could not be higher.

Director Fernando Meirelles, best known for making visceral, kinetic films like “City of God,” scales things down in bringing Anthony McCarten’s script to the screen. There are, however, moments of sweeping visual scope that provide context and drama: the story commences in 2005 with Bergoglio conducting a large outdoor mass in his hometown of Buenos Aires before seguing into that year’s papal conclave that elects Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger as Pope Benedict XVI.

The contrasting perspectives of these two men are expertly established there: while the progressively-oriented Bergoglio is portrayed as an outsider, perplexing Ratzinger by humming ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” in the bathroom, the latter carries himself with the demeanor of a man who expects that his time for election has come, and advocates a strict, conservative philosophy regarding the gospel.

When they meet again in 2012, with Bergoglio desperate for a simpler life and Pope Benedict unbending in his refusal to grant it, the circumstances have significantly changed. The church has been beset by major scandal and the need for reform has come into sharp relief.

It is here that the conversation at the center of the movie commences, the commotion largely fades into the background, and Meirelles leaves us with the considerable pleasure of watching two wonderful actors uncover the essence of these extraordinary figures.

In the quiet of the pope’s personal quarters, or set against the overwhelming splendor of the Sistine Chapel, Pryce and Hopkins reveal the weight of the burden imposed on these men. As the characters search for a common understanding and become increasingly aware of the magnitude of what’s to come, the actors infuse even the most outwardly confident of moments with a sense of genuine awe and reverent silence.

BOTTOM LINE: “The Two Popes” tells the story of one of the most consequential moments in the history of the Catholic Church with subtlety and grace, including two of the finest performances of the year.

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