We Have a Pope

We Have a Pope (Italian with English subtitles). Starring Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti and Jerzy Stuhr. Directed by Nanni Moretti. Rated M (infrequent coarse language). 102 mins.

The newly elected Pope suffers a panic attack just as he is due to greet the faithful who have been patiently awaiting the conclave’s decision. His fear of the responsibility suddenly thrust upon him is one that he must face on his own.

This is a sumptuous film. It is beautifully shot with great costumes and, given that the Vatican understandably refused to be involved, We Have a Pope has magnificent sets recreating Vatican interiors and uses other locations to great effect. It has already won prizes for its cinematography and art direction.

Apart from the superb recreation of the Conclave, which skillfully integrates archival footage from real events in April 2005, the real drama kicks in when Cardinal Melville is about to be presented to the world as the new Pope on St Peter’s balcony. The senior Cardinal Deacon goes out and says:

Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum:
Habemus Papam!

I announce to you a great joy:
We have a Pope!

As the crowd wildly cheers, the Cardinal pauses. It is at this moment that just inside the great doors of the balcony the new Pope gives out a desolate cry and says, “I can’t do this”, and runs back to the Sistine Chapel.

The Cardinal Deacon is meant to continue:

Eminentissimum ac reverendissimum Dominum,
Dominum [First Name],
Sanctæ Romanæ Ecclesiæ Cardinalem [Last Name],
Qui sibi nomen imposuit [Papal Name].

The most eminent and most reverend Lord,
Lord [First Name],
Cardinal of the Holy Roman Church [Last Name],
Who takes for himself the name of [Papal Name].

But he never gets this out and has to retreat in from the balcony without announcing and presenting the new Pope.

While the Cardinals remain held up in the incomplete Conclave, Cardinal Melville is assisted by two psychoanalysts, a theatrical troupe and the public of Rome in his discernment about whether to take up his election as the Bishop of Rome and the Supreme Pontiff.

Catholic responses to this film in Italy have been mixed. My colleague who works for the Italian Bishops Conference said of this film, “We shouldn’t touch the pope - the rock on which Jesus founded his Church…. Why should we support financially that which offends our religion?” Vatican Radio, however, said that this film contained “no irony, no caricature” of the pope, and thought it was simply a work of fantasy.

I think Vatican Radio is right. At worst, it could be argued that this film insults the Holy Spirit by implying it was absent as the Cardinals cast their votes for the emotionally fragile Cardinal Melville. It is good to remember, however, that at various times the Holy Spirit’s action has been at best obscured in the elections of Benedict IX, Leo X, Alexander VI, Innocent IV, Urban VI and Clement VII.

We Have A Pope is a human portrait of a vulnerable and good man, beautifully played by the 85 year old Michel Piccoli, who says yes to the papacy on a wave of emotion, and then struggles to cope with the responsibilities the other Cardinals have placed upon his shoulders.

In working out that struggle, this film lurches from high drama to farce, from outside the Vatican to a volleyball tournament within it, from a censorious Dean of the Sacred College insisting that everyone stay inside the Conclave to a deceitful Vatican PR man who comes and goes at whim. We Have A Pope feels like a decent idea trying to fill up screen time. It may have been a better one hour telemovie.

What was most shocking to me, and unbelievable, was that no other Cardinal in the Conclave ambitioned the papacy. “Not me Lord” they all privately pray, and so settle on a man whose opening odds for election were 90 to 1. That’s where this cinematic Conclave failed. Not in choosing a man who feels overwhelmed. That is possible. St Celestine V resigned in 1294 to become a hermit. But in having Cardinals there who were not indifferent to the workings of the Holy Spirit.

Wherever indifference is absent in the Christian life, political compromise and expediency takes over to poor long-term effect.

Fr Richard Leonard SJ is the director of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

Transmission Films.

Out December 1st December 2011.

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