Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes catches you off-guard early.

Mere minutes into the film, ABBA’s smash hit “Dancing Queen” begins playing over a montage of religious activities, letting the viewer know what kind of film they’re really in for. It’s a very fun needle drop and one that sets the stage for an equally surprising and fun two hours.

The film follows Cardinal Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) on his journey from bishop to Pope. The film spans decades, giving us Bergoglio’s life story, but spends much of its time focusing on the relationship between him and Cardinal Ratzinger/Pope Benedict (Anthony Hopkins). Bergoglio meets with the Pope to resign from his post as Archbishop, but Pope Benedict has other plans for him.

The Two Popes could easily have been a boring and dry look at the shift from Pope Benedict to Pope Francis in 2012, but the film maintains a playful spirit at every turn in spite of its daunting subject. There are soccer matches, insults, and dancing mixed in with the religious conversations and meditations on power and faith. The combination works better than you think, though there are some tonal shifts that I found a bit jarring.

The spirit of this film rests on the shoulders of Pryce, who is more than up to the task. His depiction of Archbishop Bergoglio/Pope Francis is lively, loving, and warm, with enough sorrow in his eyes to keep him from being two-dimensional. Pryce radiates charisma from his first appearance, and only keeps revealing layers as the film goes on. It’s an absolutely winning performance, and one that was immediately among my favorite of the year.

The other performance of note comes from Anthony Hopkins, whose Pope Benedict acts as a foil to Pryce’s Bergoglio. His depiction of an older, more traditionalist religious leader initially seems almost villainous before a scene where Bergoglio visits him at his home changes the viewer’s perception of him masterfully. Hopkins, who is no stranger to brilliance, gives a strong performance as a pious but regretful man who has found himself all alone.

Anthony McCarten, who also wrote The Theory of Everything, Darkest Hour, and Bohemian Rhapsody, penned the script for this film, and it’s easily his most lively and sharp work to date. He takes a straightforward premise and imbues it with heart, providing dialogue that is snappy and insightful in equal measure. While the plot does meander in the film’s second act, the character work is top notch, and he deserves some recognition for that.

The Two Popes is not the film I thought it would be. What seemed to be a standard performance showcase ends up being a thoughtful meditation on change, faith, and the burdens we place on ourselves as life goes on. The result is an insightful, moving, and often very funny film with something truly profound to say. Bolstered by a strong script and a pair of brilliant performances from Hopkins and (especially) Pryce, The Two Popes is a spiritual journey well-worth taking.

Rating: ★★★★

Directed by: Fernando Meirelles
Written by: Anthony McCarten
Cast: Jonathan Pryce, Anthony Hopkins, Juan Minujín, Sidney Cole
Release Date: 20th December 2019