U.S. Presidents come and go every four or eight years, but transitions of power between popes occur less frequently, so these special events absolutely capture our attention. “The Two Popes” is playing at TIFF 2019, and Fernando Meirelles’ (“City of God” (2002)) captivating film, about the changing of the guard between Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is one to stop and take notice.
A special event occurred on Monday, Sept. 9, because Meirelles and Pryce graciously walked the Winter Garden Theatre red carpet and chatted with the Phoenix Film Festival. Sir Anthony Hopkins was not in attendance, but in a way, the film did have two popes on the red carpet, because Juan Minujin, who plays a young Pope Francis, soaked up the atmosphere as well.
PFF: Your film features two very different popes who have several one-on-one conversations before their transfer of power. How is the film constructed?
FM: I just loved (Anthony McCarten’s script), and you really get engaged in the conversation. Of course, you can’t have an hour and a half of conversation. My challenge was how to make (their discussions) feel organic and keep the audience interested. So, they move (between locations), and some things interrupt (them), but at the end of the day, the film is about their conversations.
PFF: Now, these popes are very different. Pope Francis is so revered, and Pope Benedict –
FM: Has no charisma at all. Completely dull.
PFF: Is Pope Benedict portrayed that way on-screen?
FM: In the film, Pope Benedict, played by Tony Hopkins, is quite charming. (Jonathan Pryce’s) Pope Francis is like the real Pope Francis, and Benedict is much more charming than the real one. It’s good, because that’s how (the audience can) understand Benedict and (even) like him a bit. If you have a less charismatic actor, maybe the film wouldn’t work, (but on-screen), you see the chemistry and (become) interested in both of them.
PFF: You couldn’t ask for two better actors.
FM: Jonathan was quite an obvious choice. If you Google the pope and Jonathan - one next to the other - they look alike. I (also) watched an interview with Jonathan, and I felt (that) he has a warmth and a (great) sense of humor, and I saw the pope! This guy not only looks like him physically, but he feels like the pope. He’s tremendous in the film.
PFF: We seem to know a lot about Pope Francis. Will the film reveal new insight about him?
JP: When you see Pope Francis in the film, I think you’ll see a fictionalized version of him. These conversations between Pope Francis and Benedict are conjecture. They’re imagined, but everything is taken from things that Francis and Benedict have said or written or published, and they’ve been contrived into a conversation between the two men. I think you’ll see more than a documentary. As an actor, I could look at YouTube videos of Francis and take his qualities on-board and reimagine and interpret them. So, you (can) expose a bit more of his personality.
PFF: Their personalities are significantly different. Coming out of the film, do you feel that Francis and Benedict have more in common than you thought?
JP: They still have their differences. Absolutely, but what especially grew between them in the film is a mutual respect. They kind of liked each other, and (for) Tony and I, our relationship as actors is reflected in Benedict and Francis’ relationship.
Jeff – a member of the Phoenix Critics Circle – has penned film reviews since 2008, graduated from ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and is a certified Rotten Tomatoes critic. Follow Jeff and the Phoenix Film Festival on Twitter @MitchFilmCritic and @PhoenixFilmFest, respectively.