On “We Have a Pope” (Habemus Papem)

We did manage to get up to the Lincoln Plaza Cinema Wednesday morning to squeeze in We Have a Pope.  The story of a newly elected pontiff  having a crisis of conscience and running around Rome trying to find the best role to play for his “people” has a certain appeal, to say the least.  And the trailer made it look like it would be a good old-fashioned quirky Italian comedy, full of the kind of winking laughter that the Italians are so good at.  Who could resist the draw of watching a stern-faced Swiss Guard completely nonplussed when the Pope gives him a seductive little wave from the garden?

As is so often the case these days, film trailers particularly in America are pure marketing gimmickry, and no longer intended to give a potential audience an accurate preview of the movie’s tone or story.  Habemus Papem, translated here as We Have a Pope, certainly does have its share of laughter, and the film is great fun.  But it is also a very serious film, the kind we might have chosen to pass on if we’d been given an accurate real “preview” of what was to come.  In this case, we were delighted to have been tricked into coming.  It’s an intriguing “what-if.”  What if the Pope were to have a midlife crisis after the enormity of his election by the enclave of cardinals hits home?  What if he needed to be subjected to the ministrations of a psychiatrist?  More humanist than church bureaucrat, what if he were to see himself as unfit for the office?  What if he were to have a melt-down at the thought of being a leader of billions, and run away to hide in the streets of Rome?  Writer-director Nanni Moretti is effectively tackling far more serious issues than we expected, and he’s enlisted the help of Michel Piccoli, a refreshingly appealing, subtle, honest and reflective actor to play his Pope.  The movie is fascinating for the questions it raises, and for the relatively serious exploration of the procedures for electing a pope.  And it has lots of  subtle little vignettes of light revelation and humor at which the Italians excel.

However, once we realized the movie was going to go in a more serious direction than we expected, we were disappointed it did not go further into the mess into which the Roman Catholic Church has currently gotten itself, the inequities, crimes, and hypocrisies it has fostered, which might have given a good pope a much more genuine crisis of conscience.    Here his is more personal and emotional, and less a crisis of faith or conscience.  In fact, it’s not even that extraordinary a crisis.  One wonders how he got this far, given his nature, and why he couldn’t have had his “breakdown” a few days earlier and not put the College of Cardinals and the world through all this trouble.   The movie also side-tracks itself with some delightful footage of the psychiatrist conducting the cardinals in a volleyball tournament, as they must all await the pope’s return in seclusion.  There is no time for a pay-off for this intriguing little subplot, and no time to dig deeper into the main plot.  It is a missed opportunity to honestly examine what it would take for the Church to do its own reversal in order to become more attentive and relevant to, and supportive of, its faithful billions.  In the end, there is not enough to “take away” from We Have a Pope.  Still, the movie’s a fun diversion … with a kicker of an ending.

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