In 2011, Italian director Nanni Moretti made a movie, “Habemus Papam” (“We Have a Pope”), about a cardinal elected a most reluctant pope starring 85-year-old French actor Michel Piccoli as the pope. The movie had a good succes in Italy and at 2011 Cannes Film Festival, and Piccoli won the David di Donatello Award.
But, when pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation, the movie became a premiere once again.It is a nice movie because it captures the human sacrifice demanded of the pope. It makes you think that Francis, for example, can’t go home to Argentina to pack up his photos and books, pay his light bill, say goodbye to his neighbors and the people he saw on his daily bus route to work.
Such a simple, deep loss. Moretti’s conception of the Holy Father is a man weighed down by the immensity of his burden, who must reconcile human fears with spiritual responsibilities, and who is drawn equally to the life of the world and the life of the mind. To those, and to volleyball matches between fully-robed cardinals in the papal palace quadrangle.
Moretti’s premise is enticing, almost brilliant. One pope dies, and the conclave to elect his successor settles on Cardinal Melville, played with perfect mournful sensitivity by Piccoli. Moretti pulls off a tremendous opening set-piece, in which the assembled cardinals cast their votes for one of their number, each and every one praying they don’t get the nod, aware of the crushing effect that the pontificate would have on their lives.
It’s at the very moment when the cry of “habemus papam” – “we have a pope” – goes up that Melville’s self-doubt surges out of control; in a great howl of fear, he refuses to step out onto the balcony, and throws the papal selection process into limbo. The Vatican’s officials – portrayed affectionately enough as nervous bumblers – call in a psychoanalyst (played by Moretti himself) to try and talk Melville round. Here Moretti delivers another brilliantly witty scene, in which his attempts to delve into Melville’s psyche are hampered by doctrinal interventions from the earwigging cardinals.
It’s at this point, though, that Moretti makes a structural decision that has far-reaching consequences for his film. We are all set for a King’s-Speech style encounter between a great man and his teacher, whose relationship will define the other and provide both with an emotional journey. But Moretti has his pope suddenly scoot off into the big city, there to wander through the quotidian realities in a long dark night of the soul, in which he must wrestle with his doubts alone. Analyst Moretti is left behind in the Vatican, there to play cards with the cardinals and arrange the aforementioned volleyball tournament. With the two men apart, the film starts to meander, hopping between scenes with no particular connection, and thereby losing much of its narrative focus.
Moretti is a loose and entertaining presence as he tries to keep order in the cloisters, and Piccoli is always thoughtful and humane as his troubled soul pushes him from bakery to theatre to hotel. There’s something of Christ among the people about him, especially in one particularly moving scene when he rehearses his doubts aloud on a crowded bus.
The movie makes fun of the cardinals, like when one of them insists on knowing what odds the bookmakers gave him during the conclave. Alas, his name didn’t make their lists. But it also makes fun of psychoanalysis while recording — faithfully, as well as I know — the rubrics surrounding the papal election process.
A writer for Vatican-linked newspaper Avvenire criticised it, but it has otherwise escaped the kind of negative response authorities meted out to films such as The Da Vinci Code. “We shouldn’t touch the pope – the rock on which Jesus founded his church,” wrote Salvatore Izzo, although he admitted that priests were inclined to turn a blind eye to Moretti’s film as it “could have been meaner“. However, he added: “Why should we support financially that which offends our religion?”
Meanwhile, Jesuit journal Civiltà Cattolica (and Pope Francis is a Jesuit) praised the movie, and Vatican Radio was pleased to report that it featured “no irony” relating to the pope and was not a “caricature“. Outside the church, some commentators praised the film for painting a realistic image of the papal burden – current pope Benedict XVI has said that his 2005 election to the role felt like “a guillotine“.
In the past, Hollywood has used the Vatican’s anger over such movies as The Da Vinci Code and its prequel Angels and Demons to boost publicity and increase box-office sales, so it may be that the church has learned a lesson. Vatican expert Sandro Magister told AFP there was unlikely to be any official condemnation of Moretti’s film. “It would only help the producer,” he said. “He would be very happy with a polemic that is completely without foundation.” Meanwhile, Moretti told an interviewer for Italian RAI3 TV: “There is freedom of expression in my work. I am not commenting.” He added: “People can boycott it after seeing it.”
Habemus Papam wants to emphasise the human consequences of a great religious office, and in that it succeeds. But Moretti’s narrative construction lets him, and his film, down. Habemus Papam could have been great, but it doesn’t quite get there. It’s a little slow in parts. But it evokes compassion, pity and fear. Add it to your movie list.
Sources: ANSA, The Guardian, National Catholic Reporter