The Two Popes (UK-Italy-Argentina-US, 2019) – LFF5

Seeing doubles

I missed Fernando Meirelles’s last film as director, 360 (UK-Austria-France-Canada-Brazil-US, 2011), but his previous, BlindnessThe Constant Gardner (UK-Germany-US-China-Kenya, 2005) and City of God (with Kátia Lund, Brazil-France-Germany, 2002) were all interesting. As is the Netflix-headed The Two Popes which surprisingly engaged me given my interest in religion is tangential at best. If I struggled with the film at all it was because it humanised the Pope(s), which is not to say they aren’t human, but they tend not to represented as such. As God’s representative on Earth, the issues of representation are tricky. I dislike monolithic meta-narratives that purport to tell others how to live; earlier this week the DUP tried to keep Northern Ireland in the ‘dark ages’ regarding religion and same sex marriages to show bigotry still thrives in some institutions. Indeed, that is the focus of the film, scripted by experienced film writer Anthony McCarten, as it contrasts the last two Popes: ‘fundamentalist’ Benedict and his successor, the ‘humanist’ Francis.

The Popes are embodied by Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce, who are both superb, and the narrative is ideal for those ignorant of anything other than broad brush Roman Catholic politics (me). It sets up the conservative versus progressive narrative and then undermines it with flashbacks to Francis in Buenos Aries under the military dictatorship of the 1970s. Humans’ characters are rarely ‘black or white’, which is why the almost-deification of the Pope is ridiculous, and the film admirably shows us the shades of character that are part of all us.

My ignorance is such that I’m not sure how much we see is imagined or based on what is generally known. It’s certainly not a docudrama about the last two Papal accessions so a liberal degree of artistic licence is to be expected. The (almost) obligatory footage of the actual Popes at the end of the film seems to suggest what we’ve seen is true but the film would have been better without this epilogue. Has Francis been a better Pope than Benedict? I have no idea.

I saw the film in 4k, which for The Aeronauts added greatly to the experience (the ice on the ropes was palpably freezing), but it added little to my enjoyment of The Two Popes; though there is a scene in the Sistine Chapel. Such a dialogue heavy film will be little diminished by Netflix I suspect though, of course, films should preferably be seen in the cinema.

Calvary (Ireland-UK, 2014)

Crisis of religion

Crisis of religion

It’s impossible for an English atheist to understand the impact/stranglehold the Catholic Church had upon Eire until recently when the ceaseless revelations of scandals undermined its authority to the extent that Gay marriage was easily approved in the referendum earlier this year. Peter Mullan’s The Magdelene Sisters (Ire-UK, 2002) had shown the disgusting treatment of young women, who were pregnant out of wedlock, up until the 1980s. John Michael McDonagh’s film (like Mullan he scripted and directed) puts the pedophile priests in its sight and, with a brilliant narrative set up, starts with a ‘confession’ that Father James (the brilliant Brendan Gleeson) will be killed the following Sunday because he is a good man. This, the perpetrator feels, would be a justice of sorts. The small west coast town setting is full of ‘characters’ and James spends the week deciding what to do.

McDonagh’s debut was the well-regarded (though not by me) The Guard (Ire, 2011); Calvary suggests he might be a special talent. The slightly flippant humour that runs throughout (one priest reads, boggle eyed, The God Delusion) might have derailed the seriousness with which the film is intended to be regarded; fortunately it works to relief the ‘heaviness’ of the crimes committed by the clergy. Child abuse is used too often as a ploy to shock; in Calvary the abuse was real and by approaching it tangentially McDonagh offers us powerful insights into the relationship between ordinary people and the Church in the aftermath of the scandals.

Clearly actors, including Chris O’Dowd, Aiden Gillen and Gleeson’s son, Dohmnall in a cameo, are keen to work with McDonagh. Calvary shows us why.

Where Do We Go Now? (Et maintenant on va où?, France-Lebanon-Egypt-Italy)

Dance of grief

Dance of grief

This is a cracker dealing with contemporary issues, the role of women and sectarian strife, in a way that’s both light-hearted and tragic. If that sounds a contradiction in terms it gives some idea of the film’s brilliance that the writer-director-star, Nadine Labaki, pulls it off. Her first film as director, Caramel (Sukkar banat, France-Lebanon, 2007), didn’t grab me, though it was well regarded; this is a big step up.

It focuses upon an isolated village, possibly in Lebanon, where tensions between Christians and Muslims ferment close to the surface. At least they do with the men, the women simply get on with living with each other, warts and all. There’s plenty of humour to be had with communal television watching, where the  (slightly) risqué images cause excitement and disgust in equal measure.  There are a few musical interludes, though not enough to call it a musical, that both give a sense of community and portray Layale’s (Labaki) fantasy romance with the attractive Jamale (they are across the religious divide).

From the startling ‘dance of grief’ (above) that opens to the film to its truly radical, I think, finale this is gripping movie. I’ll say no more as they would be spoilers.