Although I am not a Catholic, I have always felt a peculiar connection to the Catholic Church. My father came from a family of devout Catholics. My great-father reportedly came to this country to escape the kulturkampf, Bismarck’s campaign to suppress the power of the Catholic Church in Germany. (Since my great-grandfather was a coal miner, it’s not clear to me why this would have affected him. I will have to do more research on this.) My father was sent to a Catholic school, an experience that had the happy effect of making him into an atheist. What’s more, most of my friends were raised as Catholics, and the ones who aren’t traumatized still go to mass occasionally. Oh, and I once played a priest in a school play.
So, I was naturally interested in seeing Nanni Moretti’s latest film, We Have a Pope. I didn’t know whether this film would be a satire of the Church or simply a “feel good” comedy in priestly drag. Strange to say, it turns out to be neither.
The College of Cardinals has gathered to choose a new Pope. After several inconclusive ballots, they elect the unassuming Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) as the new pontiff. Just before he is to be presented to the crowd in St. Peter’s square, however, he suffers a panic attack that turns into a nervous breakdown. He tells the Cardinals that the burden of the papacy would be too much for him. (Could it really be that much of a burden? Basically all the Pope has to do is make speeches denouncing contraception.) Out of desperation, the cardinals bring in a psychoanalyst, Brezzi, (Nanni Moretti) to examine Melville. Their sessions get nowhere. Brezzi mentions that his wife, (Margherita Buy), is also a therapist. Melville persuades the Vatican press agent (Jerzy Stuhr) to take him in disguise to see this woman. On their way back, Melville manages to run away. Melville wanders around Rome. He eventually falls in with a troupe of actors who are putting on a production of Chekhov’s The Seagull. Meanwhile, the cardinals are stuck at the Vatican, because, according to tradition, they cannot leave the conclave until the new Pope has been announced. To pass the time, Brezzi organizes a volleyball tournament.
The main problem with We Have a Pope is that it’s never made clear why Melville is so afraid of becoming Pope. He merely mumbles vague statements about how he is not worthy of the position. The closest we get to an explanation is when he tells Brezzi’s wife that he once wanted to be an actor. But wouldn’t that make the papacy attractive to him? After all, church ceremonies are basically a form of theater.
There are a few funny moments, but not enough for this film to qualify as a comedy. The ending is inexplicably melodramatic. From a balcony, Melville tells a huge crowd in St. Peter’s square that he cannot be Pope. He then goes inside and the screen goes black. It’s not clear what exactly Moretti is trying to say about the Catholic Church. Moretti has said about this film: “I wanted to depict a fragile man, Cardinal Melville, who feels inadequate in the face of power and the role he’s called to fill … I think this feeling of inadequacy happens to all cardinals elected Pope, or at least that’s what they say.” Unfortunately, Moretti is unable to show why we should care about this.