When a cardinal with a 90-to-1 chance of being elected Pope beats the odds and wins the vote, it sets off a crisis – both personally for the man, and very publicly for the Vatican. Melville (Michel Piccoli) doesn’t want to be Pope – no one in the conclave does, it seems – but is this a momentary breakdown under pressure, a healthy dose of self-doubt, or is he truly the wrong man to lead the church?
The Vatican brass, of course, want none of this brooding; they want His Holiness to get onto that balcony and address the masses, and get on with it. But when it becomes clear that this crisis of confidence is indeed a crisis, they call in the big guns: psychoanalysis.
Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti ( Caro Diario) takes us into the Vatican, and into an aging man’s psyche, in this exploration of faith, mortality, and what for many of us is a way of life: acting the part.
Moretti casts himself as the psychiatrist who’s brought into the Vatican to meet with the newly elected pontiff. Instructed not to ask him about sex, his childhood, even his dreams – and forced to conduct the session in a giant room surrounded by cardinals and other Vatican types – the affable Bruzzi does not get very far.
After their meeting, he quietly asks his new patient: “Do you want to be Pope?”
Melville responds: “I’m already Pope.” Desire has no place in this world.
The Vatican spokesperson (Jerzy Stuhr) then does the unthinkable: He takes the still unknown Pope outside the Vatican walls and into Rome for a private meeting with the city’s second-best psychiatrist – Bruzzi’s estranged wife (Margherita Buy). As he tells her he is an actor, his face lights up, and his lost dream is revealed.
Not surprisingly, the two sessions on the couch do nothing to alleviate Melville’s “psychological sinusitis” – or even his imposter syndrome. When given the opportunity, shortly after the appointment, he escapes into the busyness of Rome, takes a long bus ride, and falls in with a group of actors preparing to stage Chekhov’s The Seagull, a play with which Melville is intimately familiar. He knows the lines, and he knows the pain of living a life having not achieved a dream.
Back at the Vatican, more acting: A Swiss Guard has been installed in the papal apartments to create signs of life until Melville can be lured back. (The cardinals have not been apprised of the escape.) He clearly enjoys the charade: eating the lavish papal meals, smoking, and shaking those curtains, while giving the others hope that the Pope’s state of mind is improving.
Bruzzi, meanwhile, is not allowed to leave the premises until the Pope’s identity can be revealed. He kills time with the waiting cardinals playing cards, and organizing a volleyball tournament.
The too-long, sight-gag-heavy volleyball scene exemplifies the essential problem with what is otherwise a beautiful, tender film: At times, it strays into farce. Most astonishing is the ridiculous TV-broadcaster commentary which opens the film. Yes, the unrelenting media speculation is an important part of the modern-day pressures the Vatican faces in a strange situation such as this, but to begin the film in this manner does it a disservice – especially as it’s juxtaposed with the great theatre of the church: the eye-popping footage of the Vatican pomp and ceremony, and a packed St. Peter’s Square. At the very least, it’s confusing for the viewer (oh, is this a comedy?).
There are other points so disingenuous as to be distracting: Why would Bruzzi not insist, since he’s stuck there anyway, on seeing the Pope at least a second time? How could the Pope’s disappearance be kept secret from those inside the Vatican for three days (especially given the apparently paper-thin walls of the place)? How is it that Melville is carrying a wallet when he goes into Rome? And would a psychiatrist really let a patient she has met exactly once into her car with her two young children?
Still, Piccoli’s performance as the mild-mannered cleric who may have just been promoted beyond his level of competence is very moving, and his fate is never clear until the very end. As Melville relearns, a night at the theatre can change your life. So can a great film. If only Moretti had had the faith in his story and its gentle, organic comedy, and done away with the forced silliness.
We Have a Pope ( Habemus Papam)
- Directed by Nanni Moretti
- Written by Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli
- Starring Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Nanni Moretti
- In Italian with English Subtitles
- Classification: PG in Ontario
- G in B.C. and Saskatoon
We Have a Pope opens Friday in Toronto, Vancouver and Saskatoon.