Film Review: ‘We Have a Pope’ (‘Habemus Papam’)


We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam, 2011) is Italian director Nanni Moretti’s follow up to 2006’s The Caiman, his cinematic attack on former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. Whilst a deeply satirical examination of the Catholic Church, We Have a Pope is also a warm and gentle comedy about human frailty and the misguided attempts we make to alter our own fate.

A new Pope is to be elected and hordes of devout believers have flocked to the Vatican, waiting in anticipation to see the smoke from the chimney of the concave turn from black to white. Inside the Vatican, each of the candidates seem anxious over the impending vote. The responsibility of leading well over a billion followers has each of them petrified, a sentiment echoed by Moretti’s decision to allow us to pry into each cardinal’s prayers, where a cavalcade of apprehensive voices pleading to be spared.

Finally a Pope is elected, with the unanimous choice being Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), a mild-mannered prelate who begrudgingly accepts the position. However, when the moment comes to announce his election and for Melville to give a blessing to the multinational congregation which has consumed the normally peaceful plaza of St. Paul’s square, he bottles it, storming out and locking himself away. His unconventional actions and unwillingness to accept the role he’s been chosen for lead to drastic measures within the concave and the hiring of one of Rome best psychologists (Moretti). His profession is one that conflicts with many beliefs of the Catholic Church and despite the limitation of topics he can discuss, he at once attempts to get to the root of why Melville has chosen this inopportune moment to question his faith.

We Have a Pope, despite its grounding in light-hearted humour, is most notable for its beautifully visuals, with the film’s lush camera work capturing the elegant beauty of the Vatican whilst simultaneously making its towering walls and magnificent architecture feel like a palatial prison – guarded by religious doctrines and powerful spirituality. The film’s overpowering, densely layered, orchestral score also helps to further emphasise the deeply spiritual surroundings of the setting.

Morretti’s satirical eye is always in control and beneath the film’s comedy facade there are numerous moments where he confronts religion head on. From observing how removed from society the church has become, to the farcical behaviour within the conclave, there are constant indicators that We Have a Pope is a film desperate to criticise this archaic institution. The most remarkable facet of the film is how sympathetically Moretti approaches his disdain for the Church. He obviously seems to admire those who commit themselves so emphatically towards their beliefs, indicating perhaps that he hides his own spiritual yearning – it’s just apparent he doesn’t see it in the highly regimented beliefs of Catholicism.

We Have a Pope is a hugely enjoyable experience that’s sadly let down by a rather lacklustre and uninspiring ending which feels all too contrived and unrealistic a conclusion to the emotional journey Melville undertakes. Piccoli’s performance as the cardinal paralysed by feelings of despondency caused by the fracturing of his faith is outstanding, and offers a genuinely touching alternative to the film’s comical frame narrative – it’s just a shame that Moretti decided to steer clear of true controversy at the film’s final hurdle.

Patrick Gamble