We Have a Pope

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam, 2011)
Directed by Nanni Moretti

The earliest papal conclave I can remember took place in 1978 and ended with the election of Pope John Paul I. A conclave, incidentally, is a meeting of cardinals convened to select one of their own to head the Roman Catholic Church.

Actually, 1978 was the summer of two conclavi: 33 days after his election John Paul I died (it was one of the shortest reigns in papal history) and another election had to be held to select his successor, John Paul II. Thus, I am not sure weather I remember the first, the second conclave or a blend of the two.

Either way, it was an unusual summer.

In Italian we use a curious expression to describe something that happens with extraordinary rarity: “una volta ogni morte di papa” (“once every time a pope dies”). Popes, it seems, usually enjoy a long life. In the English language, on the other hand, we don’t think so much about popes but, rather, gaze at the sky and use the expression “once in blue moon.” A telling difference, I think.

In the summer of 1978, however, something that should befall with great infrequency ended up happening twice.

In Italy, the election of a pope, whether or not you are a practicing catholic, is an event that captures people’s attention. And in that remote, almost unfathomable, pre-Berlusconi era (when all TV channels were State run), every minute of programming was devoted to nonagenarian cardinals, solemn Vatican spokesmen and reporters speaking in hush tones. How things have changed!

I remember the spectacle: St. Peter’s Square packed with the faithful, cardinals in their elaborate regalia heading to the Sistine Chapel. Most of all, I remember the famous “fumate” in the skies above the Vatican. Paper ballots, to add to the secrecy and mystery of the proceedings, are burnt during each election at the end of a vote and the color of the smoke signals the results to the people assembled in St Peter’s Square: black smoke indicates that the ballot did not result in an election, while white smoke that a new pope has been chosen.

Looking back, life outside the Vatican seemed to be in a state of gripped suspension; I can only imagine, however, the politicking and the lobbying among cardinals behind the scenes vying for the position. But not in Moretti’s film. In the opening sequences we can hear the thoughts of nearly every candidate: “Not me, Lord, please!” Being a Pope, it turns out, is a job that no one in his right mind would want.

Habemus papam” (“we have a Pope”) is the Latin phrase traditionally used to announce the election of a pontiff. In this case, as soon as an unknown cardinal named Melville (played by the great Michel Piccoli) is handed the reign of the Roman Catholic Church, he actually does lose his mind and starts yelling: “I can’t do this!”

Moretti, who co-stars as Bruzzi, a renowned psychiatrist (and an atheist), is summoned to treat what is euphemistically referred to as the new pope’s “psychological sinusitis.” Trying to determine the cause of Melville’ panic attack, the eminent shrink makes little headway. Their first (and only) session is both bizarre and comical: the shrink is not to know the pope’s identity, their meeting is observed by all members of the conclave and nearly every topic one would imagine to be the centerpiece of this session (dreams, sex, family, unfulfilled fantasies) is set off limits by the Vatican spokesman.

To better treat the reluctant pope it is decided that he should leave the Vatican and seek treatment with Bruzzi’s ex-wife, also a renowned shrink—who, like everyone else outside the conclave, ignores that Melville is the newly elected pontiff. During this clandestine outing, Melville runs away from his security detail and starts wandering the streets of Rome, chasing his long-held dream of playing Chekhov in repertory theatre and mingling with contemporary, ordinary Romans of all races and ages (seemingly, for the first time in years).

Meanwhile in the Vatican, while the Church’s spokesman works overtime to avert a scandal, several out-of-town cardinals are also itching to get into Rome in order to check out an exhibition and various tourist spots, while Moretti/Bruzzi, himself a tourist in a strange land, wants to go home to see his children. Everybody is told to stay put.

All of the witnesses to the new pope’s identity are to be cloistered inside the Vatican where we are treated to moments in the ordinary life of its denizens: some cardinals playing cards with the psychiatrist, another on his exercise bike, next door yet another cardinal puffing on a cigarette, in a hall, Swiss guards shining their gear. Later, in an attempt to kill time, Moretti/Bruzzi organizes an impromptu volleyball tournament – these scenes are hilarious.

Down darkened corridors and beyond closed doors, with no cellphones or contact with the outside world, life moves at a distinctly different pace: these are the scenes that most remind me of the summer of 1978, of an era yet untouched by the adrenaline filled extremes of the Berlusconi years and by his follies. For these sweet, sad, funny and poignant moments of reprieve, I am grateful to Moretti.

Moretti’s film tends a benign portrait of the Church’s highest echelons and never mentions the sex-abuse scandals, or any of the other pressing hot button issues that have plagued the Catholic Church in recent decades. Universally known in Italy as a leftist and a scourge of the Italian establishment, Moretti disappointed a lot of his fans and was criticized for his reluctance to stage a frontal and fierce attack on the Catholic Church.

While I have always been a fan Moretti’s activism and intense political satire, I found myself liking his nuanced approach in this film; Melville, a man burdened by expectations and desperate to run away, does remind us, in the end, of the array of issues faced by this powerful institution and why the just guidance by a sensible leader is so critical. In today’s world, with the challenges facing our society, what kind of man should be a pope is a question worth asking.

Nanni Moretti is a veteran of the Italian screen. Other great films: Dear Diary, 1993; The Son’s Room, 2001.

Mid-August Lunch

Mid-August Lunch (Pranzo di Ferragosto, 2008)
Written and directed by Gianni Di Gregorio

Ferragosto…I wouldn’t be caught dead in an Italian city!

Ferragosto, August 15th, is the height of the midsummer vacation season. It is a purely Italian phenomenon, one that I have never quite experienced anywhere else in the world. It is the time of the year when our beautiful, vibrant cities become ghost towns; you cannot get a decent meal (or buy food, for that matter), see a movie, find a doctor…

As Italians eagerly hustle to leave their cities for summer adventures on the shores or in cooler, picturesque, sometimes exotic locales, what are the casualties of this stampede?

Judging from the string of public announcements that flood the airways before the exodus, it is often pets that, sadly, end up ditched by unscrupulous owners. But what happens to the elderly? Who cares for them if they are too weak, unwell (or of limited means) to travel and join in the frolicking? This is the premise Mid-August Lunch by Gianni De Gregorio (in his directorial debut; De Gregorio is also the author of the screenplay and stars in the film).

It is hard to imagine that De Gregorio’s previous project was to write the script to Matteo Garrone’s Gomorrah, a very different, painfully honest and extremely graphic film about organized crime’s terrible hold on Naples and the Italian South.

De Gregorio, the only cast member under eighty, plays an unemployed, cash strapped Roman bachelor, whose full time occupation is to tend to every need of his 90 year old widowed mother, Valeria (beautifully played by Valeria De Franciscis).

On the fateful eve of Ferragosto, his building manager, Luigi, shows up unannounced to remind Gianni of his outstanding bills and to offer him a deal. Luigi will expunge some of these debts in exchange for Gianni looking after his elderly mother, Marina. A few hours later Luigi shows up to drop off his mamma and brings along an even older zia (aunt), Maria; we see him minutes later happily taking off in a convertible with a much younger fling. The gang is soon joined by the mamma of Gianni’s cardiologist, Grazia, also alone for Ferragosto while her son is on call.

After some initial bickering, the four nonagenarians adjust to their novel cohabitation and negotiate personalities, diets and even make it through an escape by Marina to a local trattoria (she is in the mood for romance!). Add to the mix of these unusual circumstances lots of great food, wine and cigarettes (mostly consumed by Gianni) and tranquillizers (slipped by Gianni into Chamomile tea when he has had enough of the old ladies and needs a break) and you get a film of rare humanity that defies conventions and looks at the elderly with dignity and humor. Away from their respective biological families on a zany sleepover, this most unlikely group of women starts to bond, to reminisce about the past and finds hours of happiness.

The performance of the female roles (all non professional actors) is phenomenal! Watch this film if you have a chance. Right now it is streaming on Netflix.

Un esercizio per praticare il vostro italiano