We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam): Film Review

Nanni Moretti’s tender, funny and timely Vatican romp entertains, but lacks the director’s customary bite.

A newly elected Pope who refuses to take office in this Italian comedy heading for Cannes.

Editor's note: This review was originally published on April 15, 2011.

ROME — It’s a pity that We Have a Pope, the English title of Nanni Moretti’s gently amusing tale about a newly elected Pontiff who refuses to take office, wasn’t left in the original Latin. Habemus Papam, the words by which a new Pope is announced to the world,conveys the skewed overlay of Catholic tradition and bizarre otherworldliness that give the film its unique comic tone, assisted by a rapturous performance by Michel Piccoliin the central role and Moretti in top acting form as his would-be psychoanalyst. The subject in itself should shepherd in a worldwide flock of film-goers. Let it immediately be said that there is nothing in the film to impede the enjoyment of Catholics, all the way up to the top.

Coming out in Italy just two weeks before the beatification of Pope John Paul II on May 1, We Have a Pope – which opens with newsreels of John Paul’s 2005 funeral — is set to cash in on the media frenzy for all things Papal. Its international bow in competition at Cannes, where the director’s The Son’s Roomwon a Palme d’Or in 2001, should be a 1-2 punch for the Italo-French co-production.

And yet, fans of Moretti, the political activist and beacon of uncomfortable truths, will wonder where he left the mordant, oft-times savage humor and fierce political satire of Mass Is Over and his Silvio Berlusconi send-up,The Caiman. Here the storyteller overpowers the moralist in every sense. Not a hint of clerical sex scandals clouds the surreal image of frolicking white-haired Cardinals; the most critical line in the film suggests the Church needs a leader who will bring great change, but even that plays as an offhand remark. Those looking for a probing study of religious faith, in the vein of Marco Bellocchio’s The Religion Hour/His Mother’s Smile, are knocking on the wrong church door.

What the film offers is a well-written, surprisingly mainstream comedy with an unbeatable setting, the Vatican’s inner chambers, brilliantly recreated by production designer Paola Bizzarri from an astute collage of Roman palaces and churches and shot through with bold cardinal red by cinematographer Alessandro Pesci. The illusion of being in the Sistine Chapel and the Vatican gardens alongside the Princes of the Church is satisfyingly complete.

Following the Pope’s funeral, a procession of red-robed Cardinals from all over the Earth convenes to elect a successor. The news media is lampooned in a goofy TV reporter, shooed out of the way by the suave Vatican spokesman, played with unflappable self-assurance by Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr.

The conclave is ceremoniously locked inside the Sistine Chapel and voting gets underway. Though Cardinal Gregori (Renato Scarpa) is the odds-on favorite, he is overturned in the second round by an underdog, French cardinal Melville (Piccoli.) Everyone is delighted and they escort the new Pontiff to the balcony, where he is to address the crowds in St. Peter’s Square, breathlessly awaiting the news. But just as he is about to be announced, Melville lets out a shriek and runs out of the room, under the horrified eyes of the assembly.

While Stuhr, who assumes a central role as event organizer and crisis trouble-shooter, tries to buy time with the Cardinals and the public outside, Melville falls to pieces in a crisis of inadequacy, unable to face the enormous role he is being called on to play. Suddenly, hilariously, a psychoanalyst (Moretti) is called in and is instructed to “cure” the patient in front of the entire conclave – just don’t mention sex, mother, fantasies, desires or dreams, please. When Stuhr tells the analyst (who confesses to being an atheist) that “the soul and the unconscious can’t co-exist,” it seems as though the sarcastic fun is about to start; but it doesn’t.

Instead the depressed Pontiff dodges his guards and wanders through the streets of Rome, listening to the common people on buses and in coffee shops and falling in with a theater troupe rehearsing Chekov’s The Seagull. His escape climaxes in a fancy theater, where the Pope is aptly compared to an actor.

Meanwhile, the analyst organizes a volleyball tournament for the other prisoners of the Vatican, a cute idea of good, clean fun that looks tame compared to the ferocious, politically-tinged water polo scenes in Moretti’s early Red Lob.

Still the screenplay, which Moretti penned with his Caimanco-scripters Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli, is full of inventive moments thatshow he is one of the most creative filmmakers working in Italy, astutely recasting current history into a popular form. But the finale is a let-down, leaving the feeling of an artist paralyzed by his own perfectionism and his desperate search for originality at all costs. The sacrifice in spontaneity really isn’t worth it.

What makes the film memorable, in the end, are the characters, particularly Piccoli’s wrenching portrait of the frail old Cardinal, who painfully rummages through a lifetime of human experience to reach a few words of wisdom. On a completely different register, Moretti lights up every scene he’s in as the brash, bossy shrink (a role he played in The Son’s Room) married to another obsessed analyst (Margherita Buy, virtually the only female character in this boys’ movie). Stuhr and Scarpa stand out in the sea of Vatican dwellers, though the ultra-nice Cardinals, many of whom are non-pro actors, hold their own.

Opens:  April 15 in Italy
Venue: Cannes Film Festival, Competition
Production: Sacher Film, Fandango, Le Pacte, France 3 Cinema, RAI Cinema
Cast: Nanni Moretti, Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Margherita Buy, Franco Graziosi, Cecilia Dazzi, Leonardo Della Bianca, Camillo Milli, Roberto Nobile, Gianluca Gobbi, Manuela Mandracchia, Rossana Mortara, Teco Celio, Roberto De Francesco, Camilla Ridolfi, Lucia Mascino, Ulrich Von Dobschutz, Giovanni Ludeno, Francesco Lagi
Director: Nanni Moretti
Screenwriters:  Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli
Producers:  Nanni Moretti, Domenico Procacci
Director of photography:  Alessandro Pesci
Production designer:  Paola Bizzarri
Music:  Franco Piersanti
Costume designer:  Lina Nerli Taviani
Editor:  Esmeralda Calabria
Sales Agent: Fandango Portobello Sales
No rating, 108  minutes