Saturday, April 28, 2012

We Have a Pope

Adequate to the Task                    
by Mark Dispenza

Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti (The Son's Room, The Caiman) returns to his early roots in comedy and religion in We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam).  The title may lead you to believe this is a movie about the inner politics and machinations of the Catholic hierarchy, but nothing could be further from the truth.  This is not a story about a crisis of faith, but rather a crisis of personal confidence.

The current Holy Father of the Catholic Church has died, and a new Pope must be elected.  The world waits with baited breath as the College of Cardinals, sequestered in Papal conclave, takes on the difficult task of electing the new Pope.  When the favored candidates fail to garner the required majority after repeated votes, the conclave turns to a dark horse on which everyone can agree.

No one is more shocked than the winner, Cardinal Melville, played by the great octogenarian French actor, Michel Piccoli.  However, mere seconds before the announcement from the balcony of St. Peter's, il Papa has a panic attack and is unable to address the crowd.  The announcement is suddenly pulled and Melville sequesters himself in his quarters, throwing the entire Catholic world into turmoil.  Was the new Pope taken ill?  Has he died?  Bewildered and flustered by this unexpected turn of events, the cardinals turn to Italy's top psychologist, played to comic effect by Moretti himself.

Michel Piccoli
As someone who's fond of a strong narrative story arc, I was less than enamored of the meandering journey on which Moretti takes us.  In fact I wouldn't call it a journey at all, as the story essentially returns in the end to the same place where it started.  Don't worry that I've spoiled it for you, as the most compelling reason to see this film has nothing to do with the plot.

Over the years I've reviewed many scripts and films by people who come from a variety of backgrounds within the industry.  Over time I've learned to recognize exactly which backgrounds those are by the stories I'm given.  In many cases scripts written by actors are peopled by wonderful, memorable characters and bewitching dialogue, and yet very weak in story structure.  They will typically begin to unravel in the second act and then come to a less-than-satisfying ending in the third act, as if the writer got lost and couldn't figure out how to conclude the story.  This film plays like that.

In spite of that weakness, I have to admit that I enjoyed it precisely because it was populated by such wonderful characters.  Its world looks a lot like the Vatican, but is in fact a kind of magical realism.  The cardinals are neither religious zealots, nor scheming politicos.  They are depicted as fundamentally good human beings living in a world that continuously befuddles them.  I found this a refreshing departure from the excessive negativity often contained in stories about the inner workings of the Catholic Church these days.

Nanni Moretti

While I'm sure that, like most human institutions, the truth lies somewhere between, Moretti's Disneyesque version certainly provides a plethora of entertainment.  His psychologist is really just as bewildered by the world as everybody else.  He tries to gain control and alleviate the boredom, while waiting for il Papa to come to his senses, by setting up a volleyball tournament for the cardinals.  The political competition among the delegates from different continents is thus satirized and sweetened by devolution into an athletic contest.

Don 't expect to gain any real insight into the inner workings of the Catholic Church by watching this film, but do prepare to be immensely entertained.

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