This week’s movie recommendation is a new favourite of mine: Nanni Moretti’s recent Italian film Habemus Papam [We Have a Pope] (2011).
White smoke billows above the Vatican, as the College of Cardinals selects its newest Pope. An unwitting and reluctant Cardinal Melville exchanges red vestments for pristine white, and is led towards the balcony where believers await their new leader’s first public appearance in his new office. However, on the way to the balcony, Melville suffers a nervous break down and refuses to show his face to the expectant crowd.
Unlike much of Italian cinema, in which the personal developments and relationships of the characters are used to tell the history of broader political and social changes (Visconti’s Il Gattopardo (1963) and Bertolucci’s Novecento (1976) come immediately to mind), this film is not about the Roman Catholic church as an institution. What little salutary reference is made to the challenges facing the organisation appears in the form of content-neutral calls for ‘a Pope capable of modernising the Church.’ Instead of attending explicitly to the church’s dwindling attendance and criminal intrigue, Habemus Papam focuses on the tribulations of an old man struggling with a deeply personal challenge. Melville, played by Michel Piccoli, is trying throughout the film to reconcile his devout faith in God with the profound scepticism that accompanies his belief that he isn’t up to the job. Piccoli does a superb job leading the audience through the dilemma: if Melville acknowledges that he was chosen not merely by a group of men in robes, but rather by the will of God ventriloquised through those men, then his disbelief in his own competence is simultaneously a disbelief in God.
In addition to directing the film, Moretti appears in front of the camera, too, playing the psychiatrist called in to assist the new Pope in coming to terms with his new office. My favourite scene in the film is their first therapeutic session, in which the two find themselves surrounded by the entire College, and all the questions are mediated through a cardinal.
The way Moretti captures generational divides is, in my view, especially sweet. At one point, Melville surreptitiously disappears from the Vatican to clear his head. In so doing, he leaves the cardinals confined to their quarters along with the psychiatrist, who, to alleviate the boredom, organises a ‘world cup’ volleyball competition. The cardinals initially are engrossed by the novelty of the activity, but the psychiatrist becomes exasperated when they lose interest as quickly as they acquired it. Melville, on the other hand, is captivated by the simpler pleasures of Roman life, and yearns for a sense of independence that he believes his new post will wrest from him.
Make your own mind up about the ending. Some find it disappointing; others find it appropriate. My sense is that your appreciation of the ending will depend on whether you think the film is about a Pope, or rather about an old man coming to terms with an uninvited change of lifestyle. I dare say no more.