A preamble…

In the coming years, we could see a shift in how feature films are released and viewed. Television once replaced radio, and now streaming services could replace theatrical film. I’m not ready to declare movie-going dead, but with streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon, Disney Plus, Hulu, and others on the rise, we could be witnessing a sea change in how content is produced and distributed.

Netflix, among them all, is at the vanguard of this effort. The amount of content the company produces and releases is staggering. It’s not just feature films, either. There are TV series, documentaries, comedy specials, and more.

This is not entirely unknown. The ‘TV movie’ was a staple for many years, and cable networks have been making original content for quite a while, but they have never sought to compete directly with Hollywood’s big movie studios.

But Netflix and others have carved out a hybrid role indicative of our times. We view much of their content on our TVs or portable devices, but the material is considered theatrical. Netflix alone has released such highly touted films as The Irishman, El Camino, A Marriage Story, and now –the subject of this review– The Two Popes.

These are not small movies or direct to video (such a quaint phrase) productions. These are big-budget films with acclaimed cast and wide viewership, and some, if not all, will garner serious Golden Globe and Oscar buzz.

The days of the small, art house theater are virtually over, but could the cineplex be next? For reviewers such as myself, this is an important question. I might no longer need to battle traffic, parking, and sticky theater floors to attend a screening. I can stream many of these releases from the comfort of home.

Yet, there is much to the communal experience of viewing a film, as well as gauging audience reaction, that I would miss if the majority of my reviews were conducted after home screenings.

Indeed, Netflix’s The Two Popes will be the first major film release I have reviewed after streaming it from my living room.

There is some good news here. The Two Popes was neither harmed nor benefited from being a Netflix production. It could well have been released in cinemas (and it did receive a limited theatrical distribution), but its structure, development, dialogue and story does not signify the streaming movie is in anyway different from the theatrical one.

To be blunt, this film was average, Netflix or not.

The Two Popes tells the story of the brief papacy of Pope Benedict XVI (born Joseph Ratzinger), who led the Catholic Church from 2005 to 2013, and his successor –and competitor—Pope Francis (born Jorge Bergoglio), who currently reigns as pontiff in Vatican City.

The movie is at times book reportish, which is meant to be a compliment. If you’ve ever wondered how a pope is elected The Two Popes is a nice primer. Quickly, we learn that Benedict takes the reins of the papacy, but after only a few years is worn and mired in scandal.

He summons his old rival Bergoglio, who, in what may feel more like a police-action meme, just wants to retire. Benedict eventually convinces Bergoglio he must continue to serve God and assume the papal throne.

What the core of the movie boils down to is Benedict is conservative and backward, while Bergoglio (Pope Franics to be) is liberal and forward thinking. Benedict plays piano and has rarely watched a sporting event in his life. Bergoglio hums ABBA tunes and is a devoted Argentinian football (soccer) fan.

Benedict is smart enough to know he is on the wrong side of history, and it’s time for a reformer—even if the heir apparent has Marxist leanings.

Does this sound familiar? The Two Popes does not hide its politics well. There’s a lot of talk about how walls are bad and inequality is out of control. It’s a roman a clef with Benedict as Trump and Bergoglio as Obama (or name any other progressive). The United States voters may have gotten it wrong, but Netflix and the Papacy got it right.

The Two Popes focuses less on the codger Benedict and more on the life of Bergoglio, who almost wed before receiving the call to become a priest.

The great strength of the film is the scenes with Benedict and Bergoglio, where they butt heads at first but then form a deep and lasting friendship. Benedict is played by Sir Anthony Hopkins and Bergoglio by Jonathan Pryce, and their interaction is deftly handled. Despite the characters’ profound differences and the easy way the relationship could slip into black hat, white hat (oddly, Hopkins is mostly dressed in papal white and Bergoglio cardinal or bishop black), the movie, at least between the two leads, never reduces itself quite so absolutely.

These strong sequences aside, The Two Popes moves around in time quite a bit and one never feels settled. Netflix may have produced it, but oftentimes the film gives the impression of a Discovery Channel effort; hence that book report impression (good and bad).

The performances in isolation are well done, but the overall production is bumpy and politically too obvious. I really can’t say if the film hews closely to the actual history, and this is a problem. I felt at times I was being sold a false bill of goods. After all, Vatican City has a big wall around it and, famously, Swiss Guards.

Was The Two Popes trying to portray an honest yet complicated relationship between two over-burdened men or score cheap political points?

One comes away with the conclusion there was too much of the latter and not enough of the former.

Whatever the overall quality of the story, its medium –Netflix—did not seem to affect the aesthetic. I’ve seen far better and worse in the theater, sticky floors and obnoxious hecklers included.

Nevertheless, it’s undeniable we are looking at a new landscape in terms of how we will view (and review) feature film content. Netflix and other streaming studios are attempting to change viewer behavior. Are they succeeding? If The Two Popes is our current model, the jury is still out.

On whatever kind of screen you happen to see it, the movie makes the grade but earns no gold stars.


About The Author

Randy Steinberg has been a Blast film critic since 2011. He has a Master's Degree in Film/Screenwriting from Boston University. He taught screenwriting at BU from 1999-2010. In 2020, he joined the Boston Online Critics Film Association (BOFCA). Randy can be contacted at his website: www.RandySteinbergWriting.com

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