The Two Popes (2019) follows the story of Pope Benedict XIV and future Pope Francis after the Vatican Leaks Scandal, which resulted in the resignation of the former and the swearing-in of the latter. Anthony Hopkins plays the conservative Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce plays the role of the more liberal Pope Francis.
“You cannot retire from the church unless I agree to your going, and I cannot resign until you agree to stay. It’s a conundrum. A theological conundrum,” says Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict XIV. This conundrum, this conflict and contrast between the two protagonists, is primarily the narrative of the film.
The movie has remarkable acting, beautiful sets, some original locations and some really interesting uses of flashbacks combined with an intradiegetic narration, but what sets the movie apart is that it never loses hold of its key idea: the two popes’ conflict. The conflict is not only about the situations the two are in and how they are contradictory, or complementary, to each other’s plans of life, but is also ideological. What makes it more interesting is that despite advocating two entirely different views on how religion and God should interfere with human lives, they both are united by a constant feeling on the inside of doing right by the people and by their God, and they both accept their old age. It feels like the makers were always in control and were constantly working on bringing the inner contrast of the two to the screen. In addition to the inter-personal conflict between the two, we also get to have a look into the two sides on the inside of Pryce’s character and the war going on in society fuelled by inequality, intolerance and hatred.
To study the progression of conflict in the film, it can be divided into three parts, dedicated to establish the conflict, enhance the contrast and then resolve the conflict towards the end of the movie. The movie relies heavily on the conversation between the two popes, but very consciously chosen elements like colour, framing, camera movement, lighting and even the distance of the camera from the subject help us examine the relationship between the two popes and to the rest of their world.
Establishing the Conflict
The audience is being treated differently by the two characters from the very beginning of movie. In the scene following the opening scene, we meet Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) – and how do we meet him? As an audience to a public sermon. He even talks to us. Subsequently, we follow a girl very closely who gives him important information, as if the audience is talking to him. The visuals tell us that the cardinal is a people’s person. This implies, and quite strongly, that the character is closer to the people and the audience, more personal to them. It might even be a foreshadowing to the fact that we get a much closer look into the character’s personal life later on in the movie. However, Anthony Hopkins’s Ratzinger is introduced to the audience very differently. Initially, the camera follows him from a distance walking down a path in some huge, sparsely occupied establishment. His secretary, probably, is giving him the same important information that “we” gave Jorge earlier. When the camera tries to get a closer look at him, he doesn’t look at it.
Characters seldom look straight into the camera but this angle is bit a different from the usual ¾ facial view shots where the camera steps a little sideward and looks at the subject. In those shots, the subject is mostly facing straight and the camera goes around a little. Here the camera stands right in front of the subject while he faces away as if to ignore the viewer. This is pretty much a rude treatment but that’s how it is. This establishes that the two popes are very different to the people. The two environments are very different, but what’s more different is the colour of their clothes. It is as different as black and white can be (literally). Again a (not so) subtle implication that even as people, they are very different in their beliefs. It is interesting to notice that for the greater part of the movie, they both wear utterly different colours; they alternate between white and black, eliminating the chance of stating that one of them is of light and the other dark. They are just different to each other.
The audience is again treated differently in the election. The entire meal scene is shot in objective shots (where the scene is shown from the observer’s point of view). The camera sits on the same table as Jorge’s and we see him with eye-level shots. However, we either see Ratzinger from a distance or we stand next to his table and see him through a slightly high-angle shot.
By the end of the swearing-in scene we are completely aware that the two popes differ greatly in their views and stand opposite to each other.
Enhancing the Contrast
The part after the election, the second meeting of Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict, is majorly conversational, where they discuss their beliefs, the current scenario of the church and their retirements. Initially it’s a fierce face-off between the two as they advocate their views and defend their stances. The sequence is shot in a beautiful location in Rome (the Pope’s summer residence). Here too, we see marvellous filmmaking throughout. It will be of particular interest to watch this scene where Pope Benedict accuses Cardinal Bergoglio of protesting against the church and calls him a “shepherd who runs away when the wolves appear”. The tension is escalated on the screen by continually taking closer shots as the conversation heats up to a maximum before Bergoglio admits that he has changed and the rope is made slack. The progression of close-ups makes it seem like the two character are charging towards each other.
Every chance he gets, director Fernando Meirelles asserts this difference again and again using all that can be used. Cardinal Bergoglio is seen eating in a quite open, well-lit, big dining room. In contrast, we peep at the Pope through a crack in the door eating all by himself, alone. This is an indication of their ideologies. While Bergoglio is more accommodating and inclusive of changing times, the Pope is rather conservative and enclosed when it comes to accepting newer values that attempt to change the long-standing and more trivial traditions. The frame-within-a-frame structure shot further adds the constriction to the character that tries to portray him as a lonely man who is trying to contain something, probably troubling, in himself.
We have seen Pope Benedict in some very dimly (and quite dramatically) lit shots earlier in the movie but in the scene following the above we find a very deliberate attempt to use lighting to drift the characters further apart.
The conflict in the movie is mainly about the two popes, but not only about them. Cardinal Bergoglio has gone through a lot of change himself. This is shown by flashback sequences. The temporal shift is shown by a rather desaturated, colourless palette when the story takes a look in the past. But why reducing the saturation? One might have increased the brightness out of proportion and added flares or colour streaks and the context of the story would have told the viewers that they’ve been transported back in time. The reason is that the audience is led by the character into the past. It sees the world of then through his condition. The first flashback is black and white. What can be more colourless than marriage to a priest who is now truly content with his priesthood and celibacy! In the second flashback, he was close to devastated by the state of affairs of his world and those of his followers. Alone and sad. Now he has changed. He sees better things in world and is more optimistic than ever before.
The conflict portrayed in the movie is not limited to personal affairs but extends beyond that to societal issues. There are also visuals of social conflict and they make such a strong statement that even without anyone saying anything we can understand the huge divide and the tall walls that exist between sections of society.
Resolving the Conflict
The conversation in the Sistine Chapel (which is a very beautifully designed replica after the filmmakers were denied the permission to shoot in the original location) is definitive to their relationship; they talk their hearts out. We already feel that a lot has been let out and the tension is greatly reduced. The following scene shows them breaking bread together. Remember, earlier in the summer residence they were eating separately despite the fact that they were the only people eating at that time. The pope dances with the cardinal before sending him off. The circumstances that follow bring the story to a historic ending: the resignation of a pope after six centuries. However, the movie is not done yet. In the credits scene, we see the two popes watching a soccer match together, wearing the same clothes by choice and not forced by protocol. The movie ends as the flame of the fight extinguishes, symbolised by the candle blowing out.
One might not be consciously aware of all these devices while watching the movie, but they certainly impact the mind, subconsciously making the story as believable as it was. Movies have their own world in them. Choices like these, however easy to ignore they may seem, add layers of believability to the more expressive parts of a movie and change the viewing experience greatly. The Two Popes is an excellent example to showcase the way visuals can be used to communicate an idea in a powerful yet very implicit manner.
Disclaimer: This article has not been written by Film Companion’s editorial team.