Probably the most controversial film screening at the festival, thanks to the usually virulent reaction that anything that is even remotely anti-religion tends to get these days, Habemus Papam is director Nanni Moretti‘s latest irony-laced film, which takes a firm stab at the institution of the Vatican (and unsurprisingly has already inspired notable calls to boycott it). This isn’t new territory for Moretti, who follows up 1984’s religious satire The Mass is Ended, with this look at the Vatican’s attempt to elect a new Pope, which remarkably is also the Italian director’s sixth film in Competition at Cannes over the years.
In Habemus Papam, otherwise known as We have a Pope, we are introduced to the conclave of Vatican Cardinals as they meet to elect the new pontiff from their ranks (a process which hilariously is presented like a group of school children unwillingly sitting for an exam). Panic ensues when the eventually-chosen candidate played by Michel Piccoli (who I swear is Carl Reiner’s long-lost twin), has a major anxiety attack at the responsibility and refuses to present himself to the crowd assembled in St Peter’s Square. In desperation the Vatican turn to a psychoanalyst (Nanni Moretti himself) to try and help the Pope deal with his issues, only for him to go on the run in Rome, posing as a normal civilian to hide from his Godly duty.
Hang on, a major world leader with a psychological crisis? A therapist brought in to help him? So really, it’s sort of like a comic The King’s Speech, only with more full frontal male pope-ness.
As usual, Moretti blends personal questions (this is the first time that he appears to have moved away from an autobiographical approach) with grander political motivation, though he does confirm that there is still an autobiographical element to the film:
“There is something of me in both the character of the psychotherapist and in Melville’s (the Pope’s) feelings of discomfort and inadequacy.”
His witty portrait of various machinations within the Vatican is well-envisaged and well executed: there is little misplaced parody of what must surely have been an easy target, as Moretti prefers instead to poke gentle fun, presenting the Vatican cardinals as a gaggle of occasionally immature and plainly naive men (a condition informed by their isolation it seems), slaves to what Moretti obviously sees as outdated and restrictive system of rituals. And while you might think a film of this nature, and especially one chosen for the main competition at Cannes might be all furrow-browed seriousness, Habemus Papam is genuinely warm and funny in places.
In truth the majority of the humor comes not from Moretti’s ironic jibes at the Vatican system, but from more traditional roads: they are more effective when he is sticking to simple, universal comic moments, like the Cardinal who sneakily attempts to copy his neighbor during the voting process, or another who gives up a fellow who takes dangerous tranquillizers in order to curry favor with the psychoanalyst who ends up captive within the Vatican with them when the new Pope goes on the run. The jokes would work in any adult situation, but to have these foolish men dressed in their Cardinal costumes makes the joke more absurd, and definitely more effective.
Both Michel Piccoli and Nanni Moretti steal the show in terms of performance – Piccoli’s Pope is a picture of anxiety, and when he flees and is able to interact with real people, and briefly realist his dream of becoming an actor – he shines (even if the script leaves it entirely to the audience’s imagination to guess how exactly he works his way into those situations), and Moretti’s comically frustrated psychoanalyst is just as good. Stripped of his usual techniques, and unable to ask any traditional analytic questions (since they are all either too personal – a la The King’s Speech again – or are in combat with the strict ideologies of the Church), Moretti’s man effectively gives up, and sets about having any fun he can, culminating, farcically, but humorously in his organization of a Volley Ball World Cup between the Cardinals within the Church itself. Moretti is the jester, and the octogenarian Piccoli the tragic clown, drawn not with ridicule in mind, not engagement and empathy.
All jokes aside, there are some definite comparisons to be drawn between this and The King’s Speech: the tone may be different, but there are the same themes of psychological issues, and of an impersonal figure wrestling to find a personal side, as well as a very similar style of soundtrack, and the same commitment to transmitting a broader message by focusing on the idiosyncrasies of human relationships (for The King’s Speech it was overcoming adversity, and for Habemus Papam it is a quest for normalcy). There is also a similar stylistic approach at work in both, with both directors aiming for, and achieving a rich, opulent aesthetic that helps to translate the grandeur of the subject, even though one seeks to celebrate and the other to gently mock. And in both cases there is a definite sense of tragedy cutting under a warmer overall tone: the Pope is certainly a tragic figure, unwilling and unable to take on his supremest of duties, with unfulfilled dreams of being a theatrical actor.
Overall, Habemus Papam is a strangely engaging thing, a lovingly shot, ironic comedy that never resorts to cheap digs to carry the weight of its message, while also offering an enduring humanist story about one man’s struggle to overcome his tragic personal situation. While it is focused slightly differently, like The King’s Speech, Habemus Papam is an engaging story of someone finding his voice and thus also himself.
The Upside: It is genuinely funny, and thanks to Michel Piccoli, successful as a sometimes touching portrait of self-discovery – albeit one tempered by an ironic politicized message.
The Downside: While strong in comic set-ups, and well characterized, the script leaves something to be desired when it comes to scene progression, as the Pope tends to land in situations when “on the run” that surely would have been bettered presented with a little more bridging work.