WE HAVE A POPE (Habemus Papam) C+
Italy France (102 mi) 2011 d: Nanni Moretti
Despite inexplicably being voted the #1 film of the year by the filmwriters at Cahiers du Cinéma Cahiers du Cinéma's Top Ten list for 2011 | Awards Daily, this less than engaging film, something of an infomercial for the Catholic Church, never gathers steam and is neither sacrilegious nor all that bitingly humorous, failing to take stabs at the history of war, sexism, criminality, or hypocrisy that surrounds the misguided practices of the Catholic church, attempting instead to create sympathy for a Pope who has reservations about his own human limitations, questioning his ability to serve. England has its King and Queen, while Italy has its Pope, lavished positions with a multitude of followers, where just the idea of the position itself seems exaggeratedly overblown to some, particularly wasteful and meaningless, while this would be blasphemy in the eyes of believers, where to many Catholics the Pope serves as the appointed voice of God, the human ambassador serving just under the Holy Trinity. The succession of a Pope is always a solemn occasion, something of a costume drama filled with elderly men in matching robes and hats whose practices are considered part of a ceremonial ritual that dates back for centuries, where after the death of the previous Pope, Bishops from around the world meet to choose a successor while the public gathers on the grounds of St. Peter’s Square awaiting word. While this event may be the subject of fascination for Italians and Catholics, it holds little drama for the rest of the world who most often aren’t in the least affected. Despite the rigidly out of date religious orthodoxy they espouse, which is largely ignored even by practicing Catholics, perhaps the most significant Papal event in the last 50 years was the selection of a Polish Pope, John Paul II, the first non-Italian since 1523, whose return visit to Poland in 1979 (he made 8 visits overall) while still under Communist rule had a major impact in aligning the Catholic churches in Poland with the Solidarity movement, eventually ousting the Communists from power in the 1989 election.
But Moretti’s not interested in history or politics here but instead creates a mythic circumstance, where after a series of unsuccessful attempts to gather a majority from two of the favorite candidates, the Bishops veer off course and choose a compromise candidate, a benign, well-liked Bishop who is chosen for his ability to get along with others, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who is utterly surprised, but when asked, graciously accepts the position. In the film he answers “Si,” while tradition requires the answer “Accepto,” at which point he becomes the new Pope, even before this is announced to the public. But somewhere between this moment and the time shortly afterwards when he’s expected to speak to the gathering crowd, he has a change of heart and instead retreats into the inner sanctums of the Sistine Chapel. His disappearance creates a scandal, subject to eternal speculation by the pundits both within the church and on television, where in something of an embarrassment, he seems to be suffering from an existential crisis in confidence. They quickly reel in the leading Roman psychiatrist, Nanni Moretti, though amusingly he’s restricted from asking any personal questions, where dreams, sex, and family are all off limits, and his private one on one session is conducted in front of all the other curiously attentive Bishops. When questioned about his religion, Moretti confesses he’s a non-believer, where they quickly lose faith in his lack of immediate progress, so they sneak the Pope off the premises for a visit with Rome’s #2 leading psychiatrist, Margherita Buy, Moretti’s ex-wife. When Melville reveals to the Vatican publicity agent Jerzy Stuhr, always excellent, from Kieslowski’s The Decalogue (Dekalog) (1988-89), Episode #10 and WHITE (1994), that therapy can take years, Stuhr’s acknowledged disappointment sends the new Pope out into the streets where he disappears from view. Since no one has been announced as the new Pope, he is able to mingle anonymously with the public.
Meanwhile, the Bishops (and Moretti, since he knows the Pope's identity) aren’t allowed to leave the premises until the new Pope greets the public, so in utter boredom, Moretti organizes an international volleyball tournament of Bishops using World Cup soccer brackets, where unfortunately Oceania only has 3 players, placing them at a decided disadvantage, but Moretti urges them to use this as an organizing motivation so they’ll come back with greater numbers in the future. While this may be one of the few scenes that blatantly goes for laughs, another is when Melville ends up in a hotel where he’s awakened in the middle of the night by a disturbance out in the hallway, where one man in particular is screaming and behaving like a raving lunatic, but Melville recognizes the lines he’s reciting and answers back to him in what turns out to be dialog from Chekhov’s The Seagull. This only incenses the Russian actor further, as he’s playing “all” the parts and didn’t wish any needless interruptions, eventually carted off for further psychiatric observation in an ambulance. It turns out Melville’s sister performed the play, so he is intimately familiar with the lines. For lack of a better idea, Melville hangs around this acting troupe as they rehearse the Chekhov play, trying to suggest he could fill in temporarily for the missing actor, but they’re too independently confident and opinionated, where he can’t get a word in edgewise, leaving him silenced and somewhat circumspect, further exacerbating his inclination to feel voiceless and powerless. Even when he sees attempts to explain his missing-in-action behavior on television as a kind of shared public meditation, most are miffed at his disappearance, where the Cardinals themselves are growing restless. But it is Moretti and his obsession with Italian pageantry who attempts to offer a public discourse, imagining what might happen if uncertainty was interjected into the rigid, overly certain world of Catholicism. The film isn’t about religion per se, but the fallibility of humans holding such a sanctified position, supposedly spreading the gospel of fixed moral certaintly for millions around the world, when it’s perfectly normal for humans themselves to express a little doubt from time to time.