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Posts Tagged ‘Fernando Meirelles’

There’s a moment towards the end of Fernando Meirelle’s The Two Popes when Benedict XVI (Anthony Hopkins) decides there is something he really has to get off his papal chest. ‘I’m going to retire,’ he announces.

His companion, the future Pope Francis (Jonathan Pryce), is slow on the uptake. ‘Retire? Retire from what?’ he asks, bemused.

(Look, if you think that counts as a spoiler… well, I don’t know what to say, except that I hope that being in the coma hasn’t left you with too many long-term health issues.)

It’s one of many funny moments in the film, which is consistently much lighter on its feet than you might expect. We’re getting to that time of year, after all, when the slower, heavier, and more respectable films start to show up. The Two Popes is a Netflix production, and presumably forms part of the company’s strategy of attracting viewers by being the only place where you can see prestigious, award-winning productions. Of course, in order to win the awards, the film has to get into actual cinemas, which is why it is currently enjoying a brief theatrical run before becoming exclusively available by streaming. I find it hard to find many positive things to say about this way of doing things, but this is an undeniably solid, classy movie.

As noted, the film presents itself as a dramatisation of various events which might very well have happened in recent years. The story proper gets underway in 2005, with the death of the incumbent pontiff, John Paul II. As usual, there is a good deal of politicking about who will take his place, with the hot favourite being the previous pope’s doctrinal enforcer, Joseph Ratzinger (Hopkins – the thing with the papal names means that the two lead characters have multiple names across the course of the movie). Mounting an unexpectedly strong, if rather reluctant challenge, is Argentinian cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Pryce), a man of an entirely different character.

Ratzinger is duly elected, and a somewhat disenchanted Bergoglio, anticipating the rigid conservatism of the incoming pope, returns home to Argentina to plan his retirement. Years pass, and relations between the two men do not improve. However, the problem is that Bergoglio can’t retire to a quiet life in a parish without the Pope’s permission, which Benedict is very reluctant to grant in case it is interpreted by vaticanologists as an implied criticism of his papacy. The Pope summons the cardinal to discuss the problem – and some other things he has on his mind.

What follows is essentially a two-hander between Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, as the two men talk about theology, their upbringings, the role of the church, and many other issues. Mixed in with this are various flashbacks to the earlier life of Bergoglio, depicting his discovery of his vocation, and other key moments from his past (the young Bergoglio is played by Juan Minujin). It does sound like quite a dry and heavy film when you put it like that, which may be why Meirelles goes out of his way to keep things unexpectedly light: the film starts with a jokey scene with the Pope having trouble booking a plane ticket, and things begin to verge on the downright off-beat as the college of cardinals commence their ruminations on who is to be the new pope with Abba’s Dancing Queen playing majestically on the soundtrack. He manages to maintain this throughout: any film which depicts the two popes watching World Cup final together (Germany vs Argentina, of course) is clearly not likely to be accused of over-reverence towards its subjects.

That said, it’s not afraid to pause and reflect on some of the issues it raises. The difference between the two men is dramatically useful – Ratzinger is cold, inflexible, unworldly, not especially imaginative, while Bergoglio is warm, compassionate, engaged, charismatic. And, of course, they are being played by two extremely fine actors. I don’t think the film-makers need have been too concerned about the fact that this is quite a talky film – when you have performers of this calibre working with an interesting and intelligent script, long dialogue scenes become entirely engrossing.

Now, I’ve enjoyed watching Jonathan Pryce ever since his performance in Brazil, but even so I would admit that he is obviously not as feted an actor as Anthony Hopkins. Hopkins does indeed seem to be reining it in and rather underplaying things as Benedict, but then he has also to contend with the fact that the film is rather making him out to be the bad pope in this relationship: a much less appealing figure than Bergoglio, certainly. The film’s partiality isn’t just limited to the present day scenes, either – we do learn a lot about how Bergoglio came into the church, and his travails under the military junta that seized power there in 1976. You initially think the film is doing Benedict XVI no favours by not exploring his past and character in anything like the same way.

But then you think about it a bit and you realise that, actually, not exploring Benedict XVI’s past is possibly one of the kindest things you could do for him in a movie, because there are many big question marks here. I don’t refer to his time in the Hitlerjugend, but the topic which inevitably surfaces in any discussion of the modern Roman Catholic Church: the child abuse scandals and the suggestions of a systematic, institutionalised cover-up. It has been suggested that Ratzinger’s involvement in this, and the damage its exposure could do to the Church, is the main reason for his retirement as pope.

Obviously the film has to address this, or at least touch on it – and it duly does so. I enjoyed this film a lot and found it to be mostly intelligent and well-made, but you could certainly argue it tries to dodge the issue here – or if not dodge, then certainly fudge. The resulting scene, where Benedict intimates to Bergoglio the extent of his knowledge of what’s been going on without going into too much detail, doesn’t just feel like a cop-out – it makes you suddenly realise the extent to which this film must be fictional, a what-if presentation of possible conversations between invented versions of the two men. Prior to this point the film has been plausible enough to win you over.

Well, it’s never a completely terrible idea to be reminded that a piece of fiction is a piece of fiction, and this at least is an interesting and often amusing one. And The Two Popes is well-enough written, played, and directed to give the impression that there may be a few grains of real truth sprinkled in amongst the invented sparkle, even if that impression may be completely unfounded. Worth seeing just for the performances, anyway.

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From the Hootoo archive. Originally published March 9th 2006:

Hello again, everyone, and welcome to another edition of the film review column that would just like to thank its agent, its mother, the guy who drove the catering van and thirty-seven other people before being dragged offstage by a big hook. Yessirree, it’s Oscar time again, and while the constraints of deadlines and whatnot mean that I’m writing this the day before the ceremony, I thought it would still be appropraite to have a look at a picture with a slim chance of Oscar gold. (Alas, the halcyon days when all the Best Picture nominees had already been reviewed here by this point are long since gone.)

Fernando Meirelles’ The Constant Gardener is up for four statues of varying degrees of significance. Based on a novel by John le Carre, it is the story of British diplomat Justin Quayle (Ralph ‘Little Sunbeam’ Fiennes). While on a posting to Kenya, Quayle becomes increasingly concerned about what exactly his young wife Tessa (Rachel Weisz) is up to — supposedly helping out at the local medical station, she is in fact involved in rather more dangerous forms of activism. When she is killed on a trip up-country, Quayle is forced to reconsider how well he really knew her, and embarks on a relentless search for the truth about her death. It takes him into a shadowy world where life is cheap and the lines between national governments and big business become blurred.

Well, as you can probably tell, not a lot of jokes in this one. It certainly lacks the exuberance of Meirelles’ last film, City of God, but that’s hardly inappropriate. In its place there is a greater emotional depth. The almost palpable sense of outrage at the tribulations suffered by the deprived that permeated City is still here, though, and if anything it’s even stronger. Whole evenings of worthy telethon documentaries don’t pack the same kind of punch as this two-hour film.

The Constant Gardener works on a number of levels — as a thriller, as a romance, and as a polemic — and manages to combine these elements pretty flawlessly (it reminded me a bit of the 1980s classic Edge of Darkness, without the plutonium or the mysticism, but my mum said she thought it was like The English Patient, which just shows how two people can view the same film in a completely different way). The thriller plot is complex and twisty, and Jeffrey Caine’s script does a fine job of keeping it from completely obfuscating itself. The romance is more dependent on the performances of the actors, and both leads are very good. I am a little surprised that all the critical plaudits are heading in Weisz’s direction, however, as Fiennes seems to me to give a slightly better performance in a considerably trickier role. Quayle begins the film as a slightly awkward and insecure man, consumed by the demands of his career. His progression through shock and grief towards a new resolve rings absolutely true throughout, with Fiennes managing to avoid his usual faintly detached and robotic style of acting except where it serves the story. The supporting performances are impressive as well: Donald Sumpter commands the screen as a world-weary spook, Pete Postlethwaite plays a dodgy doctor (though thankfully better dressed than the one from AeonFlux) and Bill Nighy turns up as a shady grandee, giving a performance that’s very, er, Bill Nighy-ish.

Beyond all this is a rich and sweeping portrait of Africa that doesn’t stint in displaying either the sheer beauty of the place and the vibrancy of its people or the depths of its problems — catastrophes so immense they almost defy comprehension. The film makes it very clear that most aid activities in the continent are little more than than exercises in putting elastoplasts on bullet wounds and suggests that they are little more than token gestures born of post-colonial remorse. And it’s very clear in articulating that the civilised response to this situation is perhaps very different to the humane response. The film unashamedly comes down in favour of the latter.

So, given that this is supposedly the year of the political Oscars, with serious movies like Brokeback Mountain, Crash and Munich racking up the nominations, how good are The Constant Gardener‘s chances of bringing home the gold? Well, having considered this at some length, I can confidently say I haven’t a clue. I am not entirely surprised it hasn’t scored better in the ‘big’ categories, given that this is a film about Britain and Africa which kicks off with Weisz’s character giving Fiennes a comprehensive and clearly heartfelt (if slightly hackneyed) bulwarking over American foreign policy. There may also be the fact that it doesn’t offer easy answers or allow anyone the chance to feel smug about themselves at the conclusion. But in the end the awards are surely immaterial: this is a very fine, serious film about the world we live in today. Recommended.

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