Here is my review of Nanni Moretti’s new film We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), which was first published on the Independent Catholic News site:
The Pope is dead. The Conclave is assembled in the Sistine Chapel. Three heavyweight cardinals, the bookies’ favourites, surge ahead in the first few ballots of the ensuing election – only to fall into a deadlock. When a compromise candidate is eventually chosen from the backbenches he steps forward with a humble heart and a nervous smile. But his courage fails him, and just as he is invited onto the balcony to greet the waiting world, he runs back to his room in terror, and eventually escapes into the city to contemplate the strange turn of events that has brought him to this point.
It’s an unusual theme for Italian director Nanni Moretti, a self-professed atheist. Many viewers might have expected him to put together a hard-hitting expose of ecclesiastical corruption, or at least to take a few easy swipes at the Catholic Church. Instead, we get a light-comedy that treats its ecclesiastical protagonists with amused curiosity and uncritical affection.
It’s an entertaining two hours, but it never really opens up the central question of how a man gets chosen for this high office, or why this particular man finds it impossible to bear. Veteran actor Michel Piccoli brings out the dignity and vulnerability of the avuncular Pontiff; but we don’t get any sense of what this inner struggle means to him.
There are some great scenes. Moretti himself plays a secular psychoanalyst brought into the Vatican to help the Pope overcome his paralysis. Their first session takes place before the assembled cardinals, and the visiting therapist is told he is free to explore any areas of the Pope’s life, apart from… his relationships, his childhood, his mother, etc. Moretti, dumfounded, ploughs on. The clash of cultures, of mentalities – religious and secular, classical and post-Freudian – is illustrated with such gentleness and humour.
We see a particularly corpulent Swiss guard being led into the papal apartments, and realise he is the Pope’s stand-in, charged with opening the curtains in the morning and switching off the lights at night. On the second day he discovers a penchant for method acting and feels obliged to polish off the lavish Pontifical breakfast; and by the third day he can’t resist the flourish of a papal blessing, raising his hand in benediction from behind the net curtains.
And when the Vatican spokesperson is asked why the new Pope has not appeared and what this unprecedented event means for the wider Church, he responds “It’s perfectly normal for a Holy Father to seek some space for prayer and reflection as he prepares for his new responsibilities” – the kind of pious flannel that so easily becomes a substitute for an uncomfortable truth.
The ending, which I won’t give away, is unsatisfactory. It doesn’t make dramatic sense of what’s come before, and it highlights the fact that the film is a collection of amusing vignettes rather than a coherent whole. We Have a Pope provokes a few reflections about vocation, the yawning gap between office and person, and the relationship between priesthood and acting, but it fails to make any deep impressions. It’s not tough enough or funny enough to avoid falling into whimsy. Directors like Woody Allen and Roberto Benigni (Life is Beautiful) are somehow able to mix light comedy and even slapstick with themes of profound seriousness; I wish Moretti had managed to do the same.
[Two stars out of five]