We Have a Pope is Nanni Moretti’s follow up to The Cayman – his cinematic attack on Berlusconi. Whilst a deeply satirical examination of the Catholic Church, We Have a Pope is also a warm and gentle comedy about human frailty and the misguided attempts we make to alter our own fate.
A new Pope is to be elected and hordes of devout believers have flocked to the Vatican, waiting in anticipation to see the smoke from the chimney of the concave turn from black to white. Inside we join the selected few who have been chosen as potential candidates. Each seems anxious over the impending vote, however, it’s not due to an inherent desire to be chosen but rather the fear that they might be. The responsibility of leading well over a billion followers has each of them petrified, a sentiment echoed by Moretti’s decision to allow us to pry into their prayers, where a cavalcade of apprehensive voices plead not to be chosen.
Finally a Pope is elected, with the unanimous choice being Cardinal Melville (Piccoli), a mild mannered prelate who begrudgingly accepts the position. However, when the moment comes to announce the decision, and for Melville to give a blessing to the multinational congregation which consumes St Paul’s square, he bottles it, storming out and locking himself away. His unconventional actions and unwillingness to accept the role he’s been chosen for lead to drastic measures within the concave – the hiring of one of Rome ‘best’ psychologists (Moretti). His profession is one that conflicts with many beliefs of the Catholic Church and despite the limitation of topics he can discuss with this new Holiness, he at once attempts to get to the root of why, all of a sudden, he has chosen to question his faith.
These heavily hindered sessions, conducted under the prying eyes of the clergy, come to little fruition, and a decision is made to approach another doctor. After a slightly more productive, private session, held in Rome, away from the pressures of the Vatican, Melville manages to escape his guards and flee into the city. He wanders the streets of Rome, partly to escape the crisis he has created at the Vatican but mainly to reassess his spiritual beliefs.
We Have a Pope, despite its grounding in light hearted humour, is most notable for its beautifully visuals, with Moretti’s lush cinematography capturing the elegant beauty of the Vatican whilst simultaneously making its towering walls and magnificent architecture feel like a palatial prison guarded by religious doctrines and powerful spirituality. The film’s overpowering, densely layered, orchestral score only emphasises the deeply spiritual surroundings of the film’s setting, whilst also allowing the movie’s varying tones to subtly blend together – created a cohesive comedy rooted in religious symbolism.
Moretti has created a playful comedy from an incredibly controversial subject (see the remarkably whimsical volleyball tournament in the Vatican for an example). The film’s most enjoyable moments are at its beginning, where we witness these potential cardinals argue amongst themselves and question their belief systems. The jokes are more ‘carry on up the Vatican’ than the deeply satirical swipes we’re used to from such highbrow films and it’s this jovial approach which makes We Have a Pope the hugely enjoyable movie it is.
The lack of controversy has ironically been We Have a Pope’s downfall, with many feeling it takes a rather cowardly approach. However, Morretti’s satirical eye is always in control and beneath the film’s comedy facade there are numerous moments where he confronts religion head on. From observing how removed from society the church has become, to the farcical nature of some of its rule, there are constant indicators that this is a film desperate to criticise an archaic institution. The most remarkable thing is how sympathetically Moretti approaches his disdain for the Church, he obviously seems to admire those who commit themselves so emphatically towards their beliefs and perhaps hides his own spiritual yearning – it’s just apparent he doesn’t see it in the highly regimented beliefs of Catholicism.
We Have a Pope is a hugely enjoyable experience that’s sadly let down by a rather lacklustre and uninspiring ending that feels all to contrived and unrealistic a conclusion to the emotional journey Melville goes through. Piccoli’s performance as the cardinal paralysed by feelings of despondency, caused by the fracturing of his faith and his fear of commitment, is outstanding and offers a genuinely touching alternative to the film’s comical frame narrative. It’s just a crying shame that Moretti decided to steer clear of controversy at the film’s final hurdle. It’s a moment where he could have created something profound and culturally important but ultimately he let a fascinatingly unique film crumble into a cheap, childish swipe at religion.
Director: Nanni Moretti
Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Marghertia Buy, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa
Runtime: 104 min
Country: Italy, France