Posts Tagged ‘We Have A Pope’

Explicitly religious movies seem to have fallen out of favour somewhat (and there’s nothing necessarily wrong with that), but if you’re going to release one then this is a good time of year to do so. It may be that this is the philosophy that has led to Nanni Moretti’s Habemas Papem (We Have A Pope) enjoying a UK run at the moment.

This movie is being marketed (and, indeed, in the case of many critics, received) as a comedy, for all that it opens with documentary scenes of the most sombre kind. It’s set in present day Italy, where the Pope has just passed away. Grieving crowds throng St Peter’s Square and the cardinals of the Catholic Church have assembled to elect a successor.

However, none of the pre-Conclave favourites manage to land the top job, which instead goes to the relative unknown Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who is astounded by this elevation. Nevertheless he is garbed and prepared as the pontiff in the traditional manner, right up until the moment at which he is to be introduced to the world. At this point the new Pope has a bout of the screaming ab-dabs, runs away and hides.

This causes some consternation, especially when a medical examination reveals the Pope is physically sound: he just doesn’t believe himself to be up to the job, and is now in fact suffering from hysterical amnesia. The Vatican is forced to call in a psychoanalyst (Moretti) to give the Pope therapy, despite the fact that the Catholic Church publically repudiates this kind of treatment.

Matters are not helped when the Pope goes AWOL to live incognito somewhere in Rome while he decides what to do. As the results of the election have still technically yet to be announced to the world, this means that the psychoanalyst and the increasingly restive Cardinals are trapped in the Vatican together until the Pope can be found and persuaded to do his job…

Papal comedy is a vanishingly tiny subgenre – I don’t think Angels and Demons really qualifies, which leaves our only other example Peter Richardson’s The Pope Must Die. We Have A Pope is a lot more thoughtful and interesting than that movie, but as to its value as a genuine comedy – I have my doubts.

Anyone expecting something as irreverent and bold as Father Ted is in for a disappointment, as – possibly inevitably, given it’s an Italian film – it’s broadly sympathetic throughout, towards both the Papacy and Catholicism. The seriousness of the situation in the film is not undercut or underplayed, which would usually bode well for laughs. And in places this works rather well – early on we are made privy to the private prayers of the Cardinals, and in a subversion of expectation, they’re all essentially saying ‘Please, not me.’ This quiet, humane joke really sets the tone for the film.

However, the movie really struggles to stay consistent with it. It’s being sold largely on the strength of the Pope-gets-psychoanalysed angle, but this is really just only one scene, quite early on. It’s a very funny scene, admittedly, as Moretti’s character struggles to do his job given the very long list of areas which he is not allowed to enquire into, but the film doesn’t follow up on it much.

Instead, much of the rest of the film see-saws back and forth between quite serious sequences of the Pope questioning himself and observing the everyday life of Rome, and some very broad, droll, and absurd comedy as Moretti has to find increasingly improbable ways of keeping the Cardinals from going stir-crazy. Piccoli and Moretti are both excellent, in different ways – Piccoli in particular gives a very plausible and moving portrayal of self-doubt and uncertainty. But the two threads of the film don’t feel like they connect on more than the most perfunctory level.

The movie unravels still further in the climax, which in places feels both contrived and unsatisfying. This is one of those films where the audience stay pinned to their seats as the credits roll, not because they don’t want the experience to finish or because they’re stunned by the final scenes, but because the film provides hardly any sense of closure. Given that this is supposedly a comedy, the fact that the closest thing one gets to a final message concerns the inescapability of human frailty is decidedly odd.

But then this is a very odd film anyway. I haven’t seen any of Nanni Moretti’s other films (I thought I had, but it turned out I was thinking of Maurizio Nichetti – oops), but his direction is effective and adroit and he is very funny on screen as well. Ultimately, however, We Have A Pope is a movie which has several very interesting and/or funny ideas – but it can’t seem to find a coherent story to tell with them, and ends up being too silly to work as a drama but not consistently funny enough to qualify as a successful ‘pure’ comedy.

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