December 6, 2019 at 9:34 am EST | by Brian T. Carney
‘The Two Popes’ is bird’s eye view into relationship between Francis, Benedict
Two Popes review, gay news, Washington Blade
Anthony Hopkins (left) and Jonathan Pryce in ‘The Two Popes.’ (Photo by Peter Mountain; courtesy Netflix)

This week D.C. theaters get a retro feel with two movies that hearken back to classics from the past. Both movies open today at Landmark E Street Cinema.

Like so many Hollywood religious epics, “The Two Popes” imaginatively recreates a monumental meeting between two spiritual and political figures. (Think Charleston Heston in one of the leads.) This time it’s the conservative Pope Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) and the more liberal Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), who will become Pope Francis.

“Inspired by true events,” the movie opens in 2005. The Catholic Church is in disarray. The beloved Pope John Paul II has died and as one frustrated prelate puts it, “our churches are beautiful but empty.” The Cardinals have gathered for the conclave to elect the next pope. A chance meeting in a Vatican bathroom brings together the two men who will dominate the voting: the austere German Cardinal Ratzinger and the man-of-the-people Argentinian Cardinal Bergoglio, who delightfully hums ABBA’s “Dancing Queen” while he washes his hands.

When the infamous white smoke clears, Ratzinger has been elected Pope. His tenure is marked by conservative policy positions (including a condemnation of homosexuality) and financial and sexual scandals. Bergoglio returns to Buenos Aires; he enjoys cheering on the Argentinian soccer team and advocating on behalf of his impoverished parishioners, but he has no interest in the pomp and circumstance or administrative duties associated with the position.

Bergoglio writes to Pope Benedict asking to return to life as a parish priest; in fact, he decides to visit Rome to plead his case in person. At the same time, Benedict decided to invite Bergoglio to the Vatican to discuss the state of the Church.

The fascinating conversations between to the two prelates forms the bulk of the magnificent and witty script by Anthony McCarten, the award-winning screenwriter of “The Theory of Everything,” “The Darkest Hour” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” McCarten does an amazing job at humanizing both men, balancing their theological positions with interesting personal quirks. Benedict is a snappy dresser and a loner who loves playing the piano; Bergoglio wears simple vestments and enjoys talking to the gardener about oregano plants

Award-winning Brazilian director Fernando Meirelles, whose credits include the acclaimed “The Constant Gardener” and the spectacular Opening Ceremonies for the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, stages the conversations with amazing clarity and appealing simplicity. He never loses sight of the significant spiritual and emotional stakes at play and he allows wonderful moments of humor and whimsy to rise to the surface from time to time.

Perhaps most notably, Meirelles never lets the amazing scenery upstage the action. The production design by Mark Tildesley; art direction by Saverio Sammali; set decoration by Livia Del Priore, Veronique Melery, Natalia Mendilburu and Germán Naglieri; and costume design by Luca Canfora is simply stunning. Netflix spared nothing in allowing this talented team to recreate numerous locations in the Vatican (including the Sistine Chapel) and the magnificent Papal Palace at Castel Gandolfo where most of the nation takes place. Under the eagle eye of cinematographer Cesár Charlone, the breathtaking combination of shimmering marbles, precious metals, sumptuous fabrics and beautiful scenery form an impressive backdrop for this amazing story.

Both Hopkins and Pryce are wonderful in their meaty roles. The chemistry between them is electric. Both men create fully rounded characters; each is sympathetic in his own way. 

There is, unfortunately, one major problem with “The Two Popes” — an extended flashback that details Bergoglio’s controversial role as head of the Society of Jesus of Argentina during the terrible Dirty Wars of 1976. Juan Minujin does a great job of playing the young Bergoglio, but the flashback slows the film’s momentum. Since Benedict’s own controversial past does not get a similar examination, it also unbalances the film.

Nonetheless, “The Two Popes” is a remarkable accomplishment. It’s an important film for LGBT Catholics and for all LGBT film fans and should be experienced on the big screen,

Little Joe” is a sleek and stylish rethinking of the “pod” movies like “Invasion of the Body Snatchers.” 

Emily Beecham, winner of the Best Actress Award at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, plays Alice Woodard, a single mother and plant biologist at England’s Planthouse Biotechnologies. She’s developed a beautiful crimson flower that has a symbiotic relationship with humans. When the plant is talked to and lovingly cared for, it releases a pollen that makes people feel better.

Alice’s problems begin to mount when she breaks company protocol and takes a plant home for her son Joe (whom the plant is named after). She also starts to encounter problems in the laboratory. Her colleague Chris’ courtship of her becomes increasingly aggressive and Bella’s behavior becomes erratic.

In her first English-language film, award-winning Austrian director Jessica Hausner (who co-wrote the script with Géraldine Bajard) moves the action along at a steady pace that progressively and plausibly ratchets up the tension. Her collaboration with composer Jeiji Ito gives the movie a suitably eerie soundtrack that combines traditional Japanese instruments with electronic buzzes.

Filled with gleaming white and glass surfaces and beautifully filmed by Martin Gschlacht, the set has an effectively abstract feel.

The acting is outstanding. As the increasingly isolated scientist and mother, Beecham creates an intriguing aura of increasing panic. Out actor Ben Whishaw (“Paddington,” “London Spy” and “A Very English Scandal”) is delightfully creepy as her colleague and suitor Chris, Kit Connor is great as Joe and Kerry Fox offers a nuanced portrait of a woman on the edge.

For LGBT fans of sci-fi, “Little Joe” is a must-see.

Emily Beecham in ‘Little Joe.’ (Photo courtesy Magnolia Pictures)
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