Our man in the Vatican, Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope delights both in the vibrant ritual of the papal conclave and rattling its cardinals’ chasubles.
The Vatican Cellars by Mark Wilshin
CAUTION: Here be spoilers
While the recent history of the Holy See may have been blighted by silence on child abuse and allegations of money laundering, Nanni Moretti takes the death of Pope John Paul II and the election of Pope Benedict XVI as the inspiration of his papal satire. A series of wishful-thinking what-ifs, Moretti climbs inside the Vatican’s closed doors, not as a documentarist but as a fiction filmmaker. With thousands of extras and astonishing dominance over St Peter’s Square and the Sistine Chapel, it’s tempting to think at least part of We Have A Pope was shot in 2005 – a 35mm documentary of Cardinal Ratzinger’s inauguration. But with comic asides, such as the dense journalist who mistakes black smoke for white, and the papal conclave suspended in disbelief while their elected candidate disappears, reduced to a frustrated in-house squabbling, pushy psychoanalysts and clerical volleyball, we’re in a Moretti kind of wonderland.
With none of the left-wing politics, psychological introspection or foibles of filmmaking in Aprile, Il Caimano or The Son’s Room, We Have A Pope is almost utterly unlike Moretti’s previous films. Of course, it stars the director in a prominent role, this time as the atheistic psychologist brought in to analyse the newly elected pope and guide him back to his vocation with science. And there’s a familiarly witty kind of insouciance, satirical and carefree – the conclave assembled in the Sistine Chapel steal glances, scribble and tap like anxious schoolboys, desperate not to be receive the heavenly calling. But above all, it’s a Moretti film in its moment out of time, its hiatus in the everyday. Here it’s an extended period of inbetweenness in which the world waits for a new earthly Father, while the Pope disappears with Shakespearean gusto into the populace incognito.
Michel Piccoli turns in a great performance as the reluctant octogenarian foisted onto the papacy, screaming and groaning his way through indecision and sidling away from the balcony where the faithful and an irreversible fate await him. Instead, he escapes into the city, coming face to face with Romans, seemingly, for the first time. Donning a new persona and reinventing his history as an actor, Cardinal Melville escapes his isolation, befriending a troupe of actors performing Chekhov’s The Seagull. Meantime, a portly Swiss Guard beefs up on His Holiness’ rations and performs nightly curtain-twitching duties at Jerzy Stuhr’s request, duping the conclave into believing the Pope is still in residence. But, whipped up by Moretti’s psychoanalyst, the bored cardinals are ripe for the director’s own personal style of affectionate mockery. Mummy’s boys at heart, the Italians cry for mama as they snooze while the belligerent Australians, frustrated by their confinement, are unable to sample Rome’s delights, its trattorias and Caravaggio exhibitions.
Moretti, as both director and fictional therapist, amuses himself twisting the conclave into unimaginable shapes, encouraging the elderly sages into a volleyball tournament – a riotously incongruous tangle of cassocks and colourful gilets. But at least it’s not prison dodgeball. The Vatican is a rich, powerful and well-oiled institution in which Moretti’s character often finds himself both outside and outmanoeuvred. His games come to an anticlimactic halt when the Pope’s spokesman reveals Melville’s retreat to a theatre, and the conclave sorties en masse to retrieve the wandering idler. But it’s Moretti’s plasticine approach to the Vatican, complemented by his a capello renditions of Mercedes Sosa’s Todo Cambia, which reveals most about his political intentions. Despite its softly-softly satire, We Have A Pope isn’t anti-papal or even anti-ecclesiastical, but rather a plea for change and for an injection of Melville’s humanity into the holy sea of red chasubles.
A gently humorous romp, We Have A Pope tries for neither mordant satire nor documentary illumination. Suspended in time, Moretti’s papal conclave is instead subjected to the director’s whims – finger-poking and wishful-thinking fantasies. In fact, they’re served up the same scandal twice, once as the newly chosen pontiff refuses to accept the papacy and again when he decides to abdicate. There is, perhaps despite himself, a vaguely theistic undercurrent to Moretti’s film, the clerics’ lack of a pope akin to God’s absence. And between the heavenly antechamber of the conclave and the Chosen One with a parental deficit coming down to Earth to exist among its people, there are plenty of metaphors to choose from. And while there’s hope that maybe one day a Pope will choose to abdicate, perhaps the most shocking conclusion We Have A Pope comes to is that a celestial being might just want to disappear. Like its Latin title, Habemus Papam is kind of outdated in its toothless wit, but all the more enjoyable for it.
We Have A Pope is released on 2nd December 2011 in the UK