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Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce are sheer bliss to watch in ‘The Two Popes’

Jonathan Pryce, left, and Anthony Hopkins star in “The Two Popes.” (Peter Mountain/Netflix)
(3 stars)

“The Two Popes” has become an audience favorite on this fall’s festival circuit: It took the prize at the Middleburg Film Festival in October, and it’s easy to see why. This lively, intriguing and insistently humanistic flight of fancy — imagined conversations between hard-line conservative Pope Benedict XVI and his more progressive successor, Pope Francis — brims with wit, warmth and some tantalizing what-ifs. Whether the fact that it’s mostly pure speculation will get in the way of the audience’s enjoyment will depend on each viewer’s threshold for artistic license.

Here, screenwriter Anthony McCarten (“The Theory of Everything,” “Darkest Hour”) confects to have the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio (Jonathan Pryce) visit Benedict (Anthony Hopkins) at the papal summer residence, to request in person what he’s been asking for in several unanswered letters: permission to retire. But Benedict — in failing health, besieged by financial wrongdoing at the Vatican and a sexual abuse scandal that is roiling the Catholic church around the globe — has something else in mind. Over a few days that take the duo from the pope’s extravagant lakeside gardens at Castel Gandolfo to the Sistine Chapel, the two banter and gently argue about everything from the finer points of Catholic theology to the Beatles.

At its finest, “The Two Popes” resembles such dynamic two-handers as “A Man for All Seasons” or “Frost/Nixon,” in which the characters, their dialogue and their simple atmospherics were the special effects. Hopkins and Pryce absorb into their characters so completely and immediately that it’s sometimes difficult to remember we’re watching a dramatization. Director Fernando Meirelles does a splendid job of keeping these two wily, sympathetic combatants front and center, even as he makes the most of the visual environment, especially when it comes to the detail, pomp and circumstance of Vatican ritual. One of the film’s finest scenes, which uses actual TV footage of the event, re-creates the 2005 conclave that elected Benedict, taking us into the sanctum sanctorum, not to pious strains of hymns or Gregorian chants, but to Abba’s “Dancing Queen.”

Meirelles is similarly astute when it comes to capturing Bergoglio’s life in Argentina, although when “The Two Popes” cuts away to chronicle his early years, the air goes out of the balloon. Even though these early sequences are beautifully filmed, with differing aspect ratios and palettes and a sensitive performance by Juan Minujin as young Jorge, what could be an intense, potently distilled argument becomes a hybridized Francis biopic. (The filmmakers give curiously short shrift to Benedict’s own life story, allowing the term “Nazi pope” to hang in the air, unanswered and unexplained. Similarly, although they give Francis a moving confession regarding his dubious actions during Argentina’s Dirty War, for some reason they choose to have Benedict disclose his most shameful secret in a barely discernible whisper.)

But when Benedict and Francis are going at it — quietly, with respect and scholarly restraint — “The Two Popes” is sheer bliss. McCarten is so gifted at writing deliciously convincing dialogue for actors to sink their teeth into, that some audience members feel jilted when they find out what they made up. When some fans of “Darkest Hour” discovered that the scene of Winston Churchill taking the Underground was entirely made up, they declared the movie ruined. Others shrugged and said they loved it.

Although most of the particulars of Francis’s story are true in “The Two Popes,” and he did write to Benedict asking to retire, the ballast of the film — the funny, thoughtful, sincere and ultimately reconciling conversations between two ideological opposites — might best be interpreted as McCarten’s wish-fulfillment fantasy in which the two men embody a church he wants to see evolve, despite threats of schism and self-destructive hypocrisy. (A recurring motif is Benedict’s fitness tracker that tells him to “keep moving.”)

Viewed through one lens, Benedict’s choice to retire, knowing that Francis would likely succeed him, might have been the ultimate power play of a skilled Vatican politician (after all, he has continued to live nearby and made sure to put loyalists in key positions before he left). “The Two Popes” offers a far more benevolent interpretation, suggesting that Benedict virtually handpicked Francis to welcome, or at least accept, future reform. You don’t have to believe that to enjoy the fellowship and verbal feints of “The Two Popes.” You just have to believe that where two are gathered in God’s name, anything is possible.

PG-13. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema and the AFI Silver. Contains mature thematic elements and some disturbing violent images. 125 minutes.