We Have a Pope
Pope on the lam in Moretti’s melancholy farce
The title of Nanni Moretti’s new film, “We Have a Pope,” comes from the Latin “Habemus Papam,” the pronouncement by Vatican officials that a new supreme pontiff has been chosen. It’s also something of a sick joke. During the early scenes, when the camera imagines what goes on in the top-secret elective process known as the conclave, we hear the inner voices of the world’s assembled cardinals, each begging God to pick someone else. When a compromise candidate is elected — a mild-mannered French cleric named Melville (Michel Piccoli) — it’s only a matter of time before he runs screaming from the room. Who wouldn’t want to be the pope?
Well, who would? The motivating idea behind the movie — a sort of melancholy existential farce — is that shouldering the responsibility of the faith of billions is a burden far beyond the capability of any one man. A bearded atheist
So he takes it on the lam. “We Have a Pope” is split into two tenuously connected halves, the first dramatizing the growing chaos in the conclave as tens of thousands of Catholics in St. Peter’s Square (and, via the news media, the rest of the planet) wait for news. It’s as though an entire world religion has been set on pause. Moretti is fascinated by the visual play of red vestments on white marble and also by the human frailty of individual cardinals, especially Piccoli, who at 86 remains one of the great doubters of European cinema.
Once the new pope escapes the Vatican and disappears into the daily life of Rome, the movie starts fraying. There’s a performance of Chekhov’s “The Seagull” that’s aborted when one of the actors goes crazy; we learn that Melville himself wanted to be an actor in his youth and that he still considers himself one. Is that why he balks at his new role? It’s never clear, but scenes of the ailing, disguised cleric on the bus and in a bar are touching in ways hard to articulate. The world’s kindness seems very much with him. The irony — and I’m not sure if even Moretti can hear it — is that Melville would probably make an excellent pope, his flaws and gentleness bringing him closer to the people he doesn’t want to lead.
“We Have a Pope” is a diffuse experience and often overly silly — the byplay with the Swiss Guardsman (Gianluca Gobbi) ordered to impersonate the pope (or at least jostle the drapes so the masses outside think he’s there) is amusing, an intra-cardinal volleyball tournament organized by the psychiatrist much less so. Whenever it stays with Piccoli, though, it’s mysterious and moving, struck by the humility of a man who’s not up to playing God.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.