We have a fine film

The Italian movie ‘Habemus Papam’ takes a comic, human look at the inner workings of the Vatican.

Habemus Papam film 521 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Habemus Papam film 521
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Directed by Nanni Moretti.
Written by Nanni Moretti
With Michel Piccolo and Francesco Pontremoli
Running time: 118 minutes
Hebrew title: Yesh Lanu Apifior In Italian.
Check with theaters for subtitle information.
First there was Robert De Niro as a mobster seeking therapy in Analyze This. Now we’ve got a pope who delves into his psyche with the help of a shrink in Nanni Moretti’s charming comedy Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope). Even if you are only vaguely aware of papal politics and the procedure that goes into selecting a new pope, you can enjoy this movie. It unfolds like a fable but still manages to take surprising turns now and then.
The film is directed by Nanni Moretti, who won the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his 2001 drama The Son’s Room. Moretti, a very vocal opponent of the Berlusconi government, has turned his attention to an elite society – the highest ranks of the Catholic Church – to tell a gently comic story. The fable-like quality of the film comes from the fact that while he takes us inside the decision-making process in the Vatican, the characters are childlike in a way that I doubt top-ranking cardinals and church officials could be. The film also focuses on the pageantry of the Catholic Church – on its theatrical flourishes – in a way that is dramatically effective. But it’s Moretti’s take on the characters that makes the film work.
When it opens, the pope has just died and the cardinals are sequestered at the Vatican, voting on a new pope. Although the majority of them are white and European, there are cardinals from around the world – Latin America, Africa and Asia, as well as the Americas. But otherwise the film is not informed by current events – the Berlusconi government, with its sex and corruption scandals, is never mentioned, nor are the criminal cover-ups of pedophilia in churches around the world. The cardinals are vaguely comic figures, as is the longsuffering director of public relations for the church. The cardinals, cloaked in their red outfits that make them look like the chorus of a musical about Little Red Riding Hood, are a fairly honest, likable group. As the voting begins, they all pray that they will not be the chosen one, which struck me as unlikely for a group that must be so ambitious. After some false starts, they elect a distinguished older man, Melville (Michel Piccoli).
He couldn’t look the part more. But as the white smoke pours out of the chimney and the crowds in Vatican Square await his appearance, he has a sudden but very acute anxiety attack.
After some agitated discussion, a psychiatrist (Moretti) is brought in. He has trouble getting his patient to open up in front of dozens of cardinals and given the fact that he can’t ask about sex, dreams or childhood. The neurotic shrink mentions that his estranged wife is also very good, and then the distraught pope is off on a quest to see her.
As Melville slips away from his handlers, the movie veers off in unpredictable directions. No one is exactly who he seems to be, and everyone is a great deal more vulnerable than he looks. However, the director isn’t looking for easy answers, or indeed, any answers at all. It’s refreshing in this age of dumbeddown, mass-market movies where everything is neatly explained to see this film in which characters are allowed to be inconsistent, which is another way of saying they are human. This is also a film in which the characters are all authority figures for many – a pope, the cardinals, the Vatican spokesman, and two psychiatrists – but are constantly confused about their own lives.
Director and star Moretti is improbably likable as a sometimes smug psychiatrist. The entire supporting cast is composed of character actors with extraordinarily expressive faces. But the standout is Michel Piccoli in the lead. Piccoli has had a long and distinguished career.
He has made more than 150 films and is probably best known for his role in the Jean-Luc Godard film Contempt.
He has also starred in Theo Angelopoulos’s The Dust of Time, Manoel de Oliveira’s Belle Toujours, Jacques Rivette’s La Belle Noiseuse, and Louis Malle’s May Fools, as well as films by Luis Bunuel and Jacques Demy. His frightened expression is more eloquent than volumes of dialogue explaining his fears could ever be.
No matter what your attitude toward the Vatican, Habemus Papam is a film that anyone who has ever felt fear or experienced doubt can enjoy.

Tags vatican