As a story, The Two Popes is a confused and messy thing. "Popes! They're just like us!" it declares in its pizza party scene, or the moment when Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce), the future Pope Francis, whistles "Dancing Queen" by ABBA in the Vatican men's room. But it's also about the intractable battle of wills between the conservative and progressive wings of the Catholic hierarchy over the last few decades. But it's also a warm paean to everybody holding hands and agreeing that unity is better than disagreement. But it's also firmly behind Francis's attempts to weed out the corruption in the church, particularly involving sexually abusive priests. Mostly, it's just a hang-out movie listening as two theologians banter in tones that are rather surprisingly playful, given the stakes.

So the script is a little bit of a wreck, but only a little bit, which is something of a triumph. For this is the latest work written by Anthony McCarten (adapting his own 2017 play The Pope), who has spent the 2010s shitting out one lousy biopic after another: his Unholy Trinity being 2014's The Theory of Everything, 2017's Darkest Hour, and 2018's Bohemian Rhapsody. It's certainly possible to be better than all of those without necessary crossing into "good", and I'd say that what McCarten has put together for The Two Popes is right on the line. It flops all over the place tonally and takes forever to get started, but it also has some actively interesting ideas in its head about the role of the Catholic Church in the 21st Century, and about the need for individual men to deliberately shape that role. And certainly, any actively interesting ideas are better than none.

I might as well say the same about director Fernando Meirelles, as much as it feels dirty to compare the director of City of God to McCarten, even if that film is now 17 years old. The approach he's taken to The Two Popes doesn't work, we should make that clear right away. But it doesn't work in a lively way, at least. In point of fact, the film draws from the stylistic bucket as City of God, as well as a great many other films looking for a quick hit of urgent realism. There's a lot of wiggly hand-held camera, and a handful of zooms accompanied by a rack focus. It's jittery and nervous filmmaking, suffused with an eager desire to give us a "you are there" immediacy to a film that basically just watches two old men talking, sometimes using their outdoor voices even when they are indoors. I have absolutely no idea why Meirelles and his right-hand man, cinematographer César Charlone, thought that this caffeinated, highly alert style was the right fit for this talky, lightly comic two-hander, and I will not claim to have received some revelation that it worked despite my expectations. It is, frankly a bit distracting and messy. But at least it's style; it's going for something that will impart some kind of emotional shape around the material that isn't solely generated by the words being said and the people saying them. Which isn't nothing, for this kind of stagey Oscarbait, even if it's a bit weird and ineffective.

So, in truth, most of what actually works about The Two Popes is precisely the words being said and the people saying them. In this case those people are Pryce and Anthony Hopkins, playing a fanciful "what if?" version of a meeting between Cardinal Bergoglio and Pope Benedict XVI, Joseph Ratzinger, in the summer of 2012 (eventually. First, there's a stretched-out opening in 2005, ending in Ratzinger's election, and while it's useful to seed some of the plot points to come, it's much too long). As far as Bergoglio knows, this meeting is the result of a series of letters he's written, asking for dispensation to retire; he's been feeling at odds with the Church ever since the Pope's election in 2005, which he and the other progressive members of the College of Cardinals viewed as a deliberate repudiation of forty years of reforms seeking to modernise the Church. Given the scandals that have hit the Church in the intervening seven years, and the decline in Catholicism across the world, it would seem that he's not alone in this belief. Indeed, as the film has it, Benedict is one of the people who agrees: for he has actually called this meeting with his most vocal, dedicated critic to see what Bergoglio thinks about its intentions to resign from the papacy, the first pope to relinquish the office while still living since Gregory XII in 1415, and the first to do so of his own volition since Celestine V in 1294. The rest is history, in the most literal sense.

The way the film packages this conversation is frankly a bit baffling. On the one hand, it tries to cast both men as embodiments of broader social and historical trends: they are metaphors for tradition and reform in all religions at all points in history, rhetorically dueling over the question of whether not it is the responsibility of ancient institutions to bend to the tastes of the day. On the other hand, they're two very distinct people with particular personalities in the context of the Catholic hierarchy of 2012. So the film wants to be both hyper-abstract and hyper-specific, and it mostly fumbles this. To watch the film, you might have a sense that there was some kind of scandal involving the sexual abuse of children, though you would certainly not know the details of why this was such an enormous big deal; you would hear that "the Vatican leaks" happened, but you would not know what was leaked nor who was incriminated. By trying so hard to make sure that the film stays focused on the Big Question of tradition vs. reform, the film is obliged to flatten the actual, material distinctions between Benedict and Bergoglio's actions, and their factions within the Church. While the results are theoretically interesting, they also feel rather pointedly hollow.

As it telescopes in, however, it becomes easier and easier to watch it as just one specific thing: Pryce and Hopkins getting to play verbal tennis. And this, at least, is an unbridled treat. Hopkins has had an awful 21st Century in the movies, and Pryce was never really a movie star to begin with, so it means nothing to claim that this is the best movie role either man has gotten in the last 20 years.* But still, getting to see a pair of classically-trained workhorses chewing on dense ideas expressed through elaborate dialogue is inherently pleasurable, and both actors are so alive and so impassioned by their debate that they manage to make McCarten's stolid text pulse with humanity and intellectual fire. Even the silliest moments (saying grace over carry-out pizza is the silliest by far, though in general the most "humanising" touches are the dumbest) feel earned by the gravity and sincerity with which the two actors approach it. It's a pity that the film provides a thread of flashback to Bergoglio's youth and calling to the church; it pulls us away from the best thing the film has to offer, if not its only actually good thing. But it is a hell of a good thing, and not every "only see it for the performances" slab of Oscarbait can claim such excellent, lively performances as its justification.

*Specifically, it is Hopkins's best role since Titus in 1999, and Pryce's since Carrington in 1995.