A sense of self in a leap of faith
By Michael O'Sullivan
Friday, Apr. 27, 2012
By turns sweet, sad, funny and poignant, "We Have a Pope" is the story of a man who doesn't want to be God's representative on Earth.
There's an irony to the film's title. A literal translation of "habemus papam," the Latin phrase traditionally used to announce the election of a pontiff, it refers to someone - in this case, an obscure cardinal named Melville (Michel Piccoli) who has just been elevated to pope - who has just given his Vatican handlers the slip.
He just isn't up to the task.
Can you blame him? The film, by Italian director Nanni Moretti - who also plays a psychotherapist hired by the Vatican to treat what he calls the new pope's "psychological sinusitis" - suggests that no one in his right mind would want the job.
The movie opens with a papal conclave, a gathering of cardinals in the Sistine Chapel in order to select one of their own as head of the Roman Catholic Church. Amusingly enough, the same silent prayer is on the lips of nearly every candidate: "Not me, Lord, please!"
But far from the screwball comedy that this opening scene makes the movie out to be, "We Have a Pope" is a nuanced, moving and profoundly humane exploration of doubt, faith, weakness and resolve. Sure, it has laughs. Scenes of cardinals - cloistered in the Vatican while they try to resolve the problem of a papal no-show, and killing time with an impromptu volleyball tournament - are hilarious.
But Moretti (who wrote the film with Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli) gets at something deeper. The question he's interested in is not "Where is the pope?" or even "Who is the pope?" but "What is a pope?" In today's world, with the challenges facing Catholicism on multiple fronts, it's a question worth asking.
Interestingly, Moretti's film never mentions the priestly sex-abuse scandal, abortion or any of the other hot-button issues that have rocked the Catholic Church and that make leadership of the faithful so critical. Instead, his focus is on Melville, and on what his climb up the clerical ladder has made him. "Everyone disappeared," Melville says, complaining of the aftermath of his election.
He doesn't mean that he feels isolated; he means that he suddenly can't remember anybody he used to know.
Being pope, his comment suggests, makes you lose a bit of what makes you who you are. It's a position of power that erases the self, when what the church needs is a leader who's more - not less - in touch with his humanity.
For much of "We Have a Pope," Melville wanders the streets of Rome, having run away from his security detail during a clandestine outing to see a second psychotherapist (Margherita Buy) after the first one puts too much emphasis on the subconscious, and not enough on the soul.
Like the film itself, their conversations meander, as does Melville, who, it turns out, is a frustrated actor. At one point, he falls in with members of a theater company putting on a production of Chekhov's "The Seagull," and it makes him yearn for his earlier life and theatrical ambitions. Despite the film's sometimes rambling style, Moretti never loses command of his material, or of his message.
The themes of "The Seagull" are dense and multilayered, but one of them is the notion of the self - which is also an idea that looms large in "We Have a Pope."
The unanswerable question at its heart is this: How does a leader hold onto his sense of self when the job he is about to take both demands and denies his own humanity?
Contains brief obscenity. In Italian with English subtitles.