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.

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