By Joan Ellis
We Have a Pope is shot through with strains of farce, tragedy, beauty, and majesty. The shifts among these tones and moods are often abrupt, leaving us to wonder just what writer/ director/star Nanni Moretti is trying to do. In spite of this confusion, Habemus Papam is a very good movie.
One hundred and eight Cardinals have arrived in Rome to elect a new Pope. Just as we are becoming enthralled by the majesty of the panorama, an Italian TV reporter injects a contemporary note with his intrusive but funny commentary about the silent parade of candidates as it passes in a glorious blur of reds and golds.
Director Moretti closes in on the frailties of the Cardinals. As a group, they are old, hesitant, and unfocused. Is this Moretti’s comment on the current state of the church? I think so. Life experience is not one of their strengths. As the Cardinals ponder their task, the director lets us read the minds of the gathered: “Not me, Lord, please.” And finally, they choose Cardinal Melville (a very fine Michel Piccoli.)
As we watch all this tradition unfold, it is impossible not to think that in a world revolutionized by a generation of 20-year-olds, a conclave of men in their 80s are still choosing a peer to lead the Catholic Church. This isn’t, after all, a call to be CEO of Chipotle. When, at last, the black smoke turns to white, the thousands in Vatican square cheer and wave their flags in anticipation of the new Pope’s arrival on the balcony. Not in this movie.
The balcony remains empty while inside, the new Pope is stricken by certainty that he’s not up to the job. Just as we begin to ache for the man, we find ourselves laughing at a global volley ball game designed to
occupy the aged Cardinals while they wait for their leader to recover – another comic touch in the awful anxiety of the chosen one. “Can’t you just make me vanish?” the new Pope begs. A therapist is summoned – none other than writer/director Moretti himself as Professor Bruzzi.
The Pope escapes his Vatican Secret Service and melts for a long while into the real world of Rome. Unrecognized, he rides the subway, becomes a friend to an acting troupe, visits a doughnut shop. As he wanders, we soak up the welcome sights of Rome as well as the heartbreaking inadequacy of the ordinary man who has been tapped.
His bewilderment would be endearing if he weren’t now the leader of one of the world’s most powerful religions. That, I think, is what Moretti is asking us to think about. By now we are used to being enveloped in compassion one moment and in appreciative laughter the next. The audience seems caught collectively between amusement and sorrow – for the most part, quite happily so. Departing viewers proposed alternative endings. Mine, of course, was the best but the director didn’t use it.
Joan Ellis’ address on the Internet, which contains her review library, is JoanEllis.com.