Thursday, April 05, 2012

Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope

Popes are infallible, but cardinals are not. Nevertheless, cardinals elect popes to be infallible, at least when speaking Ex cathedra. Nanni Moretti addresses that contradiction, though not exactly in those term. Yet, for all his materialist bluster, Moretti (like any good Italian) maintains a sense of awe for the church and its rituals in his latest film, We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam), which opens this Friday in New York at the IFC Center (trailer here).

We do not really know what happens during a conclave to elect a new pope, but Moretti imagines it to be something not unlike the vanishing American caucus system. After a number of straw polls, a dark horse candidate emerges, defeating all the presumptive favorites. Frankly, everyone is quite relieved, except the French Cardinal Melville.

Rather stunned at first, the Pope-elect becomes increasingly agitated as the magnitude of his new position sinks in. Paralyzed with self-doubt, he refuses to address the faithful from the balcony, which is quite puzzling to them, given the white smoke wafting in the air. Thus begins a concerted campaign to coax the new Pope to assume his mantle. Until he does, the conclave is technically still on.

Enter Moretti himself as a psychiatrist recruited to quell the Pope’s anxieties. Unfortunately, he is not a believer, which ought to make things rather awkward. However, he fits in rather well with the cardinals, but he does not make much progress with the Pontiff.

Habemus is about one hundred times more sympathetic to the Church than one would expect from the central conflict. Moretti depicts the ceremonies and sacraments with a respect approaching reverence. However, portraying Cardinal Melville as a failed actor is clearly a mistake, because it automatically brings to mind Karol Wojtyła, who performed in many underground stage productions before eventually becoming Pope John Paul II, one of the Twentieth Century’s most vigorous (and successful) advocates for human freedom and dignity.

Frankly, it is difficult to buy into the premise of a cardinal of considerable years and standing reluctant to heed such a call to service. However, two of the gentleman giants of European cinema have the presence and authority to sell-it, or least suspend disbelief. Deftly avoiding theatrics, Michel Piccoli sets the perfect melancholy tone as the new Pope, while Jerzy Stuhr (so memorable from the classic films of Krzysztof Kieslowski) gives the film some worldly heft as the harried Papal spokesman (hmm, wonder which Pope brought him on board).

Despite the implications of its third act, Habemus takes more shots at the vacuous media and the dogmas of psychiatry than the Catholic Church Moretti left. Surprisingly gentle in its humor, We Have a Pope is a good film for audiences who can buy into the unprecedented crisis of faith when it opens tomorrow (4/6) in New York at the IFC Center.