SCREENINGS & MEANINGS
By Gerald Schmitz
New film tells a Vatican story with a difference
Renowned Italian director and actor Nanni Moretti presided over the jury for the 65th Cannes film festival that a few weeks ago awarded its top prize to Michael Haneke’s acclaimed Amour, a challenging love story about an octogenarian couple. Moretti won the coveted palme d’or himself in 2001 for The Son’s Room. In May 2011 he brought to the festival a most unusual blend of the serious and the humorous with Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope), his first film in five years that is finally appearing on North American screens.
The story opens with the solemn and impressively staged funeral of a much-loved and larger-than-life pope. One thinks immediately of John Paul II and indeed Moretti used some actual footage to achieve the effect. Matters then turn to the secretive business of choosing a successor — specifically the closed conclave of the 100-plus eligible members (those under age 80) of the College of Cardinals. These red-hatted princes of the church must meet in the Sistine Chapel until they select one among them to be the next pontiff. Rumours abound, reporters speculate and crowds of the faithful and the curious wait expectantly waiting for the puffs of white smoke that will signal the election of a new pope for the world’s 1.2 billion Catholics.
The balloting then begins and proceeds according to strict formalities that have evolved over centuries. While no one except those inside knows exactly what takes place, Moretti provides a plausible scenario. Some early favourites emerge. Will it be a traditional choice or is it time for a pope from the Two-Thirds World — a Latin American or African cardinal? It soon becomes apparent that whoever occupies the chair of St. Peter will have very big fisherman’s shoes to fill, and that this is not going to be a quick or easy decision. As the days pass there seems to be a movement to find a safe compromise candidate. It focuses on a mild-mannered unassuming Frenchman, Cardinal Melville (played with great subtlety and skill by 86-year-old veteran Michel Piccoli), who is rather taken aback by this turn of events.
Melville is duly chosen and applause greets the wisps of white smoke. There is feverish anticipation of the announcement of the new Holy Father. Melville allows himself to be manoeuvred through a stunned acquiescence and is garbed in the white papal robes. It is actually possible for a pope-elect to say in Latin “I don’t accept” when the Cardinal Dean asks: “Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?” though in practice that intention would already have been communicated by any potential candidate before receiving sufficient votes. (That happened with Cardinal Colombo in 1978.) In this imagined case, Melville’s doubts begin to overwhelm him too late, when everyone is ready to acknowledge him and receive his blessing from the papal balcony.
Melville is panic-stricken and refuses to show his face to the world. It’s not just a sense of humility or unworthiness; he feels genuinely incapable of carrying out the immense burden of office that has been placed on him. Melville withdraws into anguished seclusion as disconcerted Vatican officials improvise stalling tactics and perplexed fellow cardinals — unable to leave while the identity of the new pope has still not been revealed to the public — try to figure out their next moves and pass the time. In desperation they bring in an expert, if agnostic, psychoanalyst, Professor Bruzzi (Moretti himself), who doesn’t have much luck getting through to the bewildered reluctant Vicar of Christ, but suggests that he might benefit from seeing his estranged wife, also a psychiatrist.
An appointment is arranged to secretly take Meville outside the walls for this purpose. However, he seizes the opportunity to escape his minders, changes into civilian clothes and wanders the city incognito. He even goes to see Bruzzi’s wife in the simple guise of an elderly man seeking to calm his anxiety. Having once been an actor, he finds fleeting solace with a theatre troupe rehearsing Chekhov’s The Seagull. Meanwhile ruses are concocted to make the papal apartment appear occupied.
Bruzzi, confined to the papal palace, devises amusements (a volleyball tournament!) to lift his cardinal inmates spirits, while musing on biblical evidence for mental depression and debating the merits of evolution.
Moretti bathes these scenes with a gentle humour and humanity that prevents them from descending into farce. Unfortunately for Melville, he is discovered and taken back into Vatican custody on the play’s opening night. That sets the stage for a much more daunting performance.
Dressed in full papal regalia, he is led out to the famous balcony overlooking St. Peter’s. The moment of papal annunciation has arrived. Shock, and a little awe, follow when addressing the huge throng he confesses to fallibilities that make him unable to undertake the role. He does not possess the gifts to be the supreme leader others want him to be. When one thinks of the imperial pretensions of some historical popes, there is something affecting and thought-provoking, even refreshing, about this declaration of inadequacy. It’s the very opposite of triumphalism — of a church that has all the right answers.
Moretti has said that: “Not being a believer gives me a certain distance from the church and allows me to give humanity to the cardinals and the pope. What interested me was creating a realistic frame and then putting a story within that frame that was invented. So I reconstructed the Sistine Chapel to scale at Cinecitta (studios) and, within this realistic framework, is the story I invented — the story of a pope who alternates between doubt, sadness and responsibility” (Huffington Post, April 6).
If there is a message it’s one of openness to critical self-examination over patriarchal pontification from the top down. As Moretti told Brandon Harris in an April 4th interview in Filmmaker magazine: “In the film, the crowd in the piazza is extremely happy when Michel Piccoli says, ‘We need a big change,’ and I think it corresponds to the kind of reaction we’d have in the world if the pope really said that. It seems to me that the fundamentalist Catholics are a minority. But the Vatican hierarchy is extremely slow. Without wanting to be too direct, it’s not just by chance that in the film the pope leaves the Vatican, goes among the people, undercover, stays in a second-rate hotel, hangs out with actors and other normal people. . . . It’s clear that the Vatican should be more open and more aligned with the times. . . . So within the frame of realistic portrayal, the costumes, the prayers, the rituals, the voting, within that frame I wanted to have my own fictional story. I didn’t want to tell the story that everybody wanted me to tell, a collage of the scandals going on around the church, I wanted to tell my own story. . . . I wanted to do something where the Vatican would have to deal with a pope who in order to reassert his own role as a human, renounces his role as the pope. This is very disturbing to believers. It is a critique that’s less easy, that’s less taken for granted.”
Some Catholics may find We Have a Pope unsettling, perhaps even offensive, in its somewhat irreverent approach and challenging conclusion. But the movie isn’t meant to be an attack on the institution of the papacy, much less on spiritual belief. It’s a discerning if disquieting reminder that all of us face dilemmas in our lives. All of us need help. All of us have doubts. Being entrusted with the keys of St. Peter is no exception.
Schmitz is an ambassador member of the Canadian Film Institute.