Italian director Nanni Moretti has been making films since 1973 and is often labelled as the ‘Italian Woody Allen’ by lazy critics with a passion for tenuous comparisons. Yet Allen, even on his best day, couldn’t match the skill, humour and ambition Moretti displays in his latest effort We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam, 2011). It’s almost a masterpiece, and arguably the best film to come out of Italy since Giuseppe Tornatore’s Malèna (2000).
Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is elected to be the Vatican’s next Pope, but suffers a breakdown moments before he is due to bless the crowd from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. He refuses to accept the responsibility bestowed upon him claiming the role requires a greatness he does not possess. Obviously, the Vatican is anxious to resolve this matter as quickly as possible and so they hire a psychiatrist (Moretti himself) to try and nurse the Pope back to mental health.
If you caught the first season of The Sopranos (1999), then the above description will seem familiar – the representation of an all powerful leader prone to neuroses and panic attacks brought on by the weight of responsibility thrust upon him. We Have a Pope deals with many issues, but it is the effect power and responsibility have on the human psyche that is the most prevalent.
The Cardinals are portrayed as heavily-medicated, docile old timers isolated from reality due to their position and lacking basic social skills. Adversely, Moretti’s psychiatrist is a Machiavellian egomaniac with relationship problems, spitting his dummy and sulking when things don’t go his way. Finally, the Pope himself is a nonentity who would rather hide in the shadows and follow and obey rather than stand up and be counted.
Any film which deals with the inner workings of the Catholic Church is always going to be met with fierce criticism. Some will say it’s sacrilegious to parody the Vatican hierarchy, whilst others will bleat on about how the film softens and humanises a corrupt and archaic corporation. It’s obvious that Moretti – a confirmed atheist, enjoyed poking fun at the pomp and ceremony and it’s the interaction between his psychiatrist (who is unable to leave the Vatican until the Pope recovers) and the doddering cardinals which provide the biggest laughs.
It is an extremely funny film, but also very beautiful in places – a scene depicting the Cardinals dancing to music is almost certainly a reference to The Shawshank Redemption (1994) and the two films share common ground. The Vatican, like Shawshank, is a prison for institutionalised old men and the outside world is a strange, foreign land which they struggle to understand and adapt to.
There are a couple of minor negatives, however. The much-lauded volleyball game could have been shorter, and it seems that Moretti struggled with the ending, which is satisfactory rather than great. Yet despite these minor flaws, We Have a Pope is exceptional and undoubtedly one of the films of the year so far.
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