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We Have a Pope

Director: Nanni Moretti
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Renato Scarpa, Jerzy Stuhr

(US DVD: 11 Sep 2012)

Much like Martin Scorsese’s unique epic The Last Temptation of Christ, We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) tackles a very touchy theological subject with noble, arguably orthodox intentions. The film documents the election of the (fictional) Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) to the office of the Pope. However, just as he’s about to get up on stage and face the billion Catholics worldwide awaiting his face and name, he suffers a panic attack and leaves the balcony of St. Peter’s Basilica.


From there, the College of Cardinals and the Vatican spokesperson try to find a way to get Melville motivated to live up to his duty. After all, it’s not just the two-thirds vote by the College that determines who is fit to be the Pope; Catholic theology holds that God himself is directly involved in the decision. Thus, it’s easy to see why the Vatican is in such a state of panic when Melville continually refuses to stand atop the balcony and declare his acceptance of God’s wishes for him.


Though the story of We Have a Pope is fictionalized, theoretically such an event is possible. The most moving scene in this dramedy comes early on, when the initial ballots are being cast by the College (it takes three votes for Melville to secure the two-thirds majority): as the Cardinals sign their ballots with shaking hands, voiceovers of these men’s thoughts begin to form a choir of fear: “Don’t pick me!” “Not me!” “Not me!”


Being elected as Pope is an undeniable honor for a Cardinal, but this reaction shouldn’t be surprising by any means. Catholic doctrine holds the Pope as the Vicar of Christ, quite literally the voice of God on Earth. The Pope’s authority is believed to derive from the Apostolic Succession of Peter. These titles and descriptions are not things that should be worn lightly; to quote the worn-out Spider-Man Lesson of the Day, “With great power comes great responsibility.” All of these duties are topped off with the whipped cream of having one billion people worldwide scrutinize your every statement.


So in short, Melville’s panic is completely understandable. Were he to jump up and down in blind joy, there’d be reason for serious concern.


This, however, isn’t where the movie goes wrong. A premise like this is one any person proclaiming the Catholic faith should take in and truly consider. When it comes down to it, the question is quite simple: “What happens when God calls me to do something that I don’t feel I can do?” That sort of theological question doesn’t just face the Pope: it faces anyone of any theistic faith, Catholic or otherwise. A question of this type involves, amongst others, two key considerations: the divine and the human. If one accepts any notion of divinity, s/he must consider if there really is any divinity involved in being called for a particular purpose. But for those who ascribe to Christian notions of Original Sin, recognizing the intrinsic flaws within humanity is equally important. When the Vatican calls in a psychiatrist (actor/director Moretti) to see if there is anything wrong with the Melville’s mental state, this is the very concern they are addressing.


The psychiatrist’s entrance is where the fatal shift occurs in the film. The first quarter of We Have a Pope is deeply Catholic in its depiction of the election, the process of putting the papal robes on Melville, etc. But when the psychiatrist is brought in, the tone of the movie tacitly endorses his worldview. Moretti’s performance here, though underdeveloped in many ways, is the funniest part about We Have a Pope. The thought of a non-believing psychiatrist attempting to perform Freudian psychoanalysis on the Pope is pretty hilarious, as is the prospect of a College of Cardinals volleyball tournament, which he arranges while the Pope struggles to accept his title. He makes the best out of being forced to stay within the confines of the Vatican, which he’s required to do since he knows the identity of the Pope. (One of the film’s salient criticisms resides in the psychiatrist’s situation: despite the doctor-patient confidentiality that binds the psychiatrist, the College does not trust him to leave the Basilica.)


Yet while the psychological aspect of Melville’s instability are crucial to this examination of the Pope, the divine elements of the title he’s bestowed with. What ends up becoming the main character development of Melville is his past desire to be an actor; after running away from the Vatican, he happens upon a theatre troupe that reminds him of his failed attempt to get into the acting academy. The Swiss Guard, the “armed forces” of the Vatican, finally catch him watching the troupe’s play in a theatre. This fact of Melville’s past is interesting, but in focusing just on that the film downplays any of the divine attributes given to the Pope. Much like the psychiatrist, We Have a Pope seems to think the only thing to think about when analyzing the insecurities of a Cardinal is his human past.


Now, this isn’t to say that the film should have been more “Christianized” or “Catholicized”. In the end, there really isn’t much, if at all, unorthodox content in We Have a Pope. Papal resignation, which happens in the film’s conclusion, is completely allowed under the tenants of Catholic belief, though in historical terms it’s statistically uncommon. Rather, the film attempts to lay claim on a subject it doesn’t appear to understand very well. It’s clear that Melville doesn’t feel up to the job, but it’s never really specified why, unless the unresolved ties from his failed acting career is the issue, which doesn’t really make sense as an explanation.


The heavy focus on the human aspects of the Pope creates a simplistic reading of human nature, wherein divine concerns and mortal weakness are two fundamentally different things that never interrelate. Piccoli does a wonderful job embodying a Cardinal struggling with the responsibilities entrusted to him, but unfortunately the rest of what’s here does him little justice. The world of We Have a Pope is one where being elected the Pope, the highest position in the Catholic Church, is relegated to the same status as a CEO. The power provided by the job is scary, but the only thing a man must do in the face of this is face his own insecurities.


Just before the election of the Pope begins, the Cardinals sit without light in the Sistine Chapel, awaiting for an electrical problem to be fixed. One Cardinal asks, “Do they know we’re in darkness?” It’s a wonderful line of dialogue, a potent metaphor that runs throughout the entirety of We Have a Pope. For all of its flaws, this is a film about darkness and uncertainty, and how both can make the prospects of immortalization within the Catholic Church seem like the most horrifying thing in the world. But Moretti never lets the audience see anything more than past fears dominate Melville’s time on screen, even though everyone knows the looming specter of God himself hangs over his head the whole time.


The only bonus feature included on the disc is a trailer.

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Brice Ezell is the Assistant Editor of PopMatters, where he also reviews music, film, and books, which he has done since 2011. He also is the creator of PopMatters' Notes on Celluloid column, which covers the world of film music. His writing also appears in Sea of Tranquility and Glide Magazine (formerly Hidden Track). His short story, "Belle de Jour", was published in 67 Press' inaugural publication The Salmagundi: An Anthology. You can follow his attempts at wit on Twitter and Tumblr if you're so inclined. He lives in Chicago.


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