‘We Have a Pope’ Not!

I’ve been accused of being anti-Catholic which may be because I don’t believe in monastic life and being governed by an all-male organization. That may color my view of the 2011 Italian comedy “We Have a Pope” or “Habemus Papam” which opened today at the Laemmle Pasadena Playhouse 7.

The original Italian title is the Latin phrase used to announce a new pope. As the title suggests, the pope has died and now cardinals have gathered to choose a new pope. The faithful and the media wait in St. Peter’s Square for the announcement as several ballots end in black smoke. None of the main candidates reaches a quorum. We are privy to the thoughts of the candidates and, in humility, no one wants to be picked.  Finally, French Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is chosen, but feeling inadequate, he refuses to appear.

Until the pope appears before the people on the balcony officially accepting the position, the election ceremony is not over and the cardinals cannot have any contact with the outside world. They are like a sequestered jury waiting to make their official declaration.

The cardinals decide to confer with a psychiatrist, Professor Brezzi (Moretti), but since he can only treat the pope with the whole college of cardinals present, he’s not particularly effective.

Here the movie becomes like 1953 romantic comedy “Roman Holiday.”  The new but unofficial pope consults privately with Brezzi’s ex-wife (Margherita Buy) outside of the Vatican. He tells her he’s an actor and she comes to the conclusion that Brezzi predicted in a separate scene, but the mad escapade begins when he leaves her office. The pope decides to take a walk and through lucky happenstance (or divine intervention), is able to evade his minders and begins to wander the city, from time to time watching and commenting on the televised media siege outside the Vatican.

At his hotel, he happens to confront a troubled actor, reciting passages of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.”  We learn that this pope is indeed a failed actor but he is able to help the acting troop until the actor is better.

Back at the Vatican, the professor must remain in confinement with the cardinals  as the pope’s chief minder, the Vatican spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) enlists a Swiss Guard (Massimo Dovrovic) to help maintain the illusion that the pope is back from his excursion and merely refuses to come out of his chambers. As he waits the professor dispenses opinions on the Bible, medication and volleyball. These scenes while amusing, offering some fine characters bits, ultimately don’t pay off.

Even if the ending of “Roman Holiday” was heartbreaking, the situation was resolved and we sensed that all the main players–the princess (Audrey Hepburn), the mercenary reporter (Gregory Peck) and his equally opportunistic photographer friend (Eddie Albert)–were changed as a result of this holiday.

Piccoli’s reluctant pope is a man with some regrets but now trapped in a manner that magnifies all his doubts. It’s a nuanced and sympathetic performance, but the movie ultimately fails to provide an appropriate vehicle. Yet some credit must be given to the writing team; they didn’t give in to the temptation to resolve all the threads into a happy neat little package. Piccoli’s pope remains true to his character to the end.

Filming was done in Rome using replicas of Sala Regia (the state hall in the Apostolic Palace) and the Sistine Chapel as well as location filming at the Palazzo which houses the French Embassy and Villa Medici which houses the Academy in Rome. The sets are beautiful.

It’s hard to gauge how influential and important the Vatican is to Italian culture and society. Consider the Party of Love founded by Italian porn star Anna Ilona Staller, La Cicciolina, and her friend, Moana Pozzi, also a porn star. Sallter was elected to Italian parliament in 1987 and infamously attempted to end the Gulf War by offering to have sex with Saddam Hussein. She made a second offer in 2002 and extended that invitation to Osama bin Laden.

Was it fear of angering the Vatican or the writers’ actual own inclinations that made this comedy so muted? Written by Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli, with Moretti also directing and starring, the movie may lack direction because of too many authors or too strong an ego to be tempered and wisely edited. The film was not officially condemned by the Vatican although one Vatican correspondent, Salvatore Izzo, called for a boycott of the film.

Previously Moretti has gotten political. Moretti’s 2006 comedy, “The Caiman” focused on the three-term Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi and his controversial past. The film was popular in Italy, yet while Berlusconi lost the 2006 elections, more scandals would follow when Berlusconi was in this third term (2008-2011).

Moretti’s “We Have a Pope” doesn’t touch on any of the controversies that have touched the Catholic Church in recent years–not the smaller, less explosive ones like women as priests, the necessity of celibacy and not the larger, more ethnical problems as the protection and secrecy offered to priests who molested their trusting followers.  Ignoring this minor and major issues of the Vatican allows us to view all these elderly bishops and cardinals as kindly uncles and grandfathers.

I enjoyed the gentle fable-like notion that the cardinals aren’t driven by ambitions or other earthly  vices and are instead filled with humility and doubt. It reminded me of King Frank from C.S. Lewis’ “The Magician’s Nephew” who replied to Aslan when asked if he would be king, “Begging your pardon, sir, and thanking you very much I’m sure (which my Missus does the same) but I ain’t no sort of a chap for a job like that. I never ‘ad much eddycation, you see.”

Would humility make the Vatican a better place? Wouldn’t it make us all better? “We Have a Pope” is in Italian with English subtitles.

Laemmle’s Playhouse 7 – 673 East Colorado Boulevard, Pasadena, CA – Map
‎1:40‎ – ‎4:20‎ – ‎7:00‎ – ‎9:35pm‎


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