A Comedic Blessing

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam)
(Italy/France, 104 min.)
Dir. Nanni Moretti, Writ. Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli.
Starring: Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Nanni Moretti, Renato Scarpa, Margherita Buy.
Nanni Moretti and Michel Piccoli in We Have a Pope
Courtesy of eOne Films.

A comedy about The Pope – sounds about as much fun as a Sunday in church, right? Since The Bible warns of the perils of doubt, one should therefore have a little bit of faith in this new film from director/actor/co-writer Nanni Moretti. We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) is a delightful and surprising little film that offers viewers an intimate look inside the walls of The Vatican. It might not turn water into wine, but We Have a Pope is a blessing for anyone in search of a funny and thoughtful comedy this summer.

As the opening credits roll, a parade of Cardinals makes its way through the halls of the Vatican. The conclave chants in mourning for the recently deceased Pope. The procession passes by a media frenzy in which paparazzi fervently speculate at which of the Cardinals will be the next man summoned to lead the faithful. The bookies favour Cardinal Gregori (Renato Scarpa), but the first few rounds of voting end in nothing but black smoke. As the Cardinals sweat it out, few of their prayers are answered.
Nobody is praying to become The Pope, mind you. Rather, all the Cardinals are crossing themselves in hopes that each new ballot distances them from the papacy. Unfortunately, for one little Cardinal named Melville (Michel Piccoli), God et al have summoned him to ride the Popemobile.  

Habemus Papam!” an aged Cardinal decries proudly before the throngs of the faithful that have assembled in St. Peter’s Square to hear the announcement. His exultant ejaculation, however, is met with a cry of horror from the newly minted Pope who waits in the wings to greet the masses. The Pope then declares himself unworthy of the leadership and leaves the Cardinals and billion(ish) followers in limbo as they await the joyful news of their new Pope.

Thanks to some arcane laws and precedents, none of the Cardinals may leave the Vatican until The Holy See provides the name of the new Pope to the people. The Vatican’s PR guru (Jerzy Stuhr) pacifies the masses with as much positive spin as one can without committing a sin, but the real task is for the Vatican to restore Melville’s faith in himself. The publicist enlists the help of a psychoanalyst (played by Moretti) who, in addition to being one of the many allegorically nameless characters of the film, also happens to be an atheist and a man of science. It seems the Catholic Church needs to branch out a little if it wants a miracle to happen.

The psychoanalyst fails to unearth the right memories from the Pope – partly because the Vatican refuses to acknowledge the subconscious and partly because it withholds the right for the psychoanalyst to ask anything personal of the new Pope. To aid the course, though, the psychoanalyst offers the advice of his ex-wife. (She’s nameless, too). The papal PR man whisks the Pope to her office in a covert operation, but the Pope goes AWOL in Rome, and thus leaves the Vatican literally without a Pope.

As the Cardinals and the psychoanalyst remain stranded within the confines of the Vatican, The Pope/Cardinal Melville wanders around Rome in search of both his faith and himself. His meeting with the female psychoanalyst uncovers a faint memory that he experienced some paternal neglect as a child. The rapport between Melville and the female psychoanalyst is one of the threads that We Have a Pope never really develops, but the idea that The Pope experiences a crisis in faith because of a sense of abandonment from “the Father” is one of the potentially ripe allegorical threads that Moretti leaves open for viewers to ponder themselves.

Melville uses his newfound freedom to do a little soul searching that he needs before accepting his divine summons. He hits the streets and immerses himself in the people. Whether he is riding the bus or congregating with a troupe of actors that prepares a show of Chekov’s The Seagull, Melville connects with the daily lives of the people whose interests and faith he is presumed to shepherd. Particularly with the actors does he find some clarity and catharsis: during an excerpt of his interview with the female psychoanalyst, he describes himself as an actor who has long loved the tasks of rehearsal and ritual; however, he says that he now finds himself in a role too difficult for him to play. Within the actors Melville finds a kindred spirit – an old actor, now slightly off his rocker, has memorized all the lines and stage directions of The Seagull. He can play the part with rote perfection, but it feels completely removed from a sense of here and now, much like a mass led by man who finds himself in utter disconnect with God.
Nanni Moretti in We Have a Pope. Courtesy of eOne Films.

Back in the Vatican, the PR rep devises a few tactics and feats of misdirection to convince both the Cardinals and the public that all is well and holy with the Pope. The presumption is that he is praying in order to get through this difficult time, but one sees little prayer in We Have a Pope. The Cardinals play cards and pop sleeping pills within the walls of the Vatican, but rarely does Moretti show them communicate with God. They do unite, however, for a holy volleyball tournament that the male psychoanalyst organizes. It’s a hoot to see the old Cardinals bump and volley, but the tourney is one example in which We Have a Pope meanders a little too far into slapstick and away from the insightful dilemma in which Melville finds himself. Why bother showing ten minutes of geriatrics wheezing and grimacing in slow motion when there is so much more drama to develop within Melville’s crisis of faith?

Michel Piccoli offers a fine subtle performance as the devotionally conflicted Melville, and Moretti scores a few points in the role of the psychoanalyst, although the latter role serves mostly as a voice box for the debates that the church needs to confront. Moretti also gives a fair, even-handed portrait of the Catholic Church as it stands today. Through Melville’s re-evaluation of himself as a man of God, We Have a Pope offers a careful, methodical examination of the co-dependency of faith and doubt. It might not do so on the same level as say, Vera Farmiga’s Higher Ground, but We Have a Pope raises some important questions for organized religion at a time when the doctrine of the Catholic Church seems increasingly at odds with the attitudes and mores of contemporary society. More importantly and most provocatively, though, Moretti brings the film to a surprising open ending that asks viewers to question their own beliefs. As the papal conclave culminates with an essential announcement for the legions of devotees awaiting direction, Moretti leaves the church in search of an answer. Sheep will roam without a shepherd, but where exactly does that leave the flock?

Rating: ★★★ (out of ★★★★★)

We Have a Pope plays in Ottawa at The Bytowne until June 5.