WE HAVE A POPE  (2011)

Running Time:  102 mins.                      Rating: x Stars/5 Stars

MPAA Rating: Unrated

Director: Nanni Moretti

Genre: Drama

Country: Italy/France

Language: Italian, German, Latin, English, Spanish, Polish and French w/English subtitles

Distributor: Sundance Selects

Cast: Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Franco Graziosi, Camillo Milli, Roberto Nobile, Ulrich von Dobschutz, Gianluca Gobbi, Nanni Moretti, Margherita Buy


While I enjoyed watching WE HAVE A POPE, when it came time for me to recount the picture to myself in preparation to writing this review, I found that there was a lot to bitch about. While I thought it was a film on a certain level, I found that it really was a film on a much lower level. This is all due to the film’s star, Michel Piccoli, if not the best actor in the world, (as if that could be determined), in the very top rank of actors. His scenes raise the film to the highest reaches of film art. Others scenes, amusing to a point, become more problematical in retrospect. There is a tangle of plotlines which begin promisingly and then are left to die on the vine.

The plot concerns Cardinal Melville (Piccoli) who has been elected Pope, but suffers an instant nervous breakdown and refuses accept the election. Now, I’m on rather shaky grounds (no pun intended) when it comes to the Vatican and the institution of the Papacy. I am not now nor have I ever been a Roman Catholic (though I’ve seen a lot of Hitchcock movies). I know next to nothing about the Vatican other than an excellent tour given by the Ursuline nuns who run a (or did run) a bed & breakfast in Rome just off the Piazza Navona. They took groups into Vatican City via the back door and showed things that tourists who enter through the front door never see. I have only the vaguest sense of Vatican history, except for maybe the latter half of the Thirteenth Century. Whenever there’s an election for Pope I do not get involved as it’s not worth it for me to become a Catholic just to have an opinion.

A Benedictine monk who actually lived in a cave, Pietro Angelerio, who on the death of Pope Nicholas IV in 1292, sent a letter to the assembled cardinals urging them to select a new pope with all alacrity (it was going on two years). With that the Dean of the College of Cardinals said “I elect Pietro di Morrone” (he was called after the name of his previous cave) which was ratified. Pietro refused and even tried to escape but was convinced by a deputation of cardinals and the kings of Naples and Hungary (the son and grandson on Charles of Anjou, the principal troublemaker and villain of the 13th Century). He was crowned in August, 1294, as Celestine V. His papacy was virtually a prisoner of Charles II, King of Naples, appointing a dozen cardinals, French and Neapolitans with one exception (and therefore likely to be manipulated by the French). His papacy of 161 days has been reckoned an unmitigated disaster except for his confirmation of the conclave rules of Pope Gregory X regarding the papal elections and no more two year interregnums). He resigned and was succeeded by Pope Boniface VIII who immediately made Celestine a literal prisoner.

There are several incidents in Celestine’s life which are used in WE HAVE A POPE, particularly Celestine’s escape. Calling for a psychoanalyst was not one of them. To somehow make a screaming and trembling man presentable as the new pope, the desperate curia calls in Italy’s greatest psychiatrist Professor Brezzi (Nanni Moretti). Now here is the first problem, common in a lot of movies: while he (Professor Brezzi) is called the greatest psychiatrist in Italy, nothing he does supports this identification.  The cardinals insist on ground rules as to which areas the shrink might enquire into. They insist on being present, en mass (no pun intended), during the therapy. This is obviously counterproductive. The doctor is useless so they seek out the second best psychotherapist in Italy who is in fact the wife of the number one psychotherapist. And they’re separated, he says because she was envious that he was number one. And she, he says, has an obsession with this one diagnosis based very early childhood trauma. The difference is that this time the psychoanalyst won’t be informed of the precise identity of her patient.

So Melville is taken surreptitiously to the shrink’s office. She is just as useless as her husband. Maybe more so because she steers the dialogue in such a way that she can arrive at her favorite diagnosis, infantile trauma…  The two best psychoanalysts in Italy are clueless and totally lacking any psychoanalytic skill. Actually the male’s appearance in the film is somewhat aggravating. After he fails in helping Melville, he is held in the Vatican as a virtual prisoner until the Pope can somehow be brought in front of the public.  Then he gets into various things, such as finding a definition of depression in the bible, advising the cardinals on their medications, etc. Each time it looks as if this is going someplace, only to just peter (no pun intended) out like a river in the desert.

At one point he organizes a volleyball tournament for the cardinals which is more of a funny idea than funny. I kept waiting for some sort of comic payoff but, as with everything to do with the psychoanalyst, it never goes anywhere. Perhaps it could have been in a way funny to see a bunch of elderly men playing volleyball but it just comes off somehow as sweet. BTW, it’s a fact that cardinals over the age of 80 are no longer allowed to vote in the papal conclaves but, like so much of the Vatican action, director Moretti has defended himself by stating that everything happens not in the Vatican, but in HIS Vatican. It’s all his imaginary story and a world that operates on his rules at his pleasure. So there.

The real purpose of the psychoanalyst character is structural. He is used to punctuate the adventures of Melville who escapes from his handlers and wanders through Rome. The adventures are definitely lower case, a cafe with some laughing young people, a theatre company with an actor who has gone mad, ordinary people on a bus. Nothing monumental or even dramatic. It just shows that Melville is more comfortable around real, normal people, then the very artificial life of the Vatican.

Melville is, of course, Michel Piccoli, perhaps the actor best loved by European cineastes. I hadn’t seen a new film with Piccoli in it since 1997. When the picture began I was looking at the procession of cardinals filing into the Vatican for the funeral of the dead pope and I couldn’t find him. During the election I scanned the room and couldn’t find him. It was only when they came up to him to offer congratulations that I could say to myself: that was Piccoli! It was like seeing one’s ex-wife after 40 years and trying to make out the person one knew from the person whose image was now before one, to match the familiar features with what one sees. Somewhere in there was Michel Piccoli.

Oh, Piccoli. What is speaking but air forced past the vocal cords, but oh what Piccoli can do with mere air.

It’s amazing how little Piccoli has to do to communicate. Little smiles, sidelong glances, a tilt of the head. He dominates scenes with actors doing a lot more. As Cardinal Melville (the name recalls the director who gave him a showy supporting role in LE DOULOS) he absentmindedly gets on a bus and slowly becomes aware of the people around him and for the first time his depression is lifted. He finds that being around other people invigorating and, in a word, heartening. He goes back to the shrink not for therapy but to enjoy her being with her children. They get in a car and the children fight in the back seat and he is enthralled by the normalcy of it all. A frustrated actor, that’s what he tell the therapist when she asks him what he does for a living, which opens another window onto his role in the church but again, it’s not followed up on, instead becoming literalized when he falls in with a theatre troupe rehearsing Chekov’s The Seagull. One of the actors goes mad, playing all of the rolls even vocalizing the stage instructions until he is carted away on a stretcher. They need a replacement actor and we’ve seen Melville lip mime the dialogue and they’re desperate and wouldn’t it be great to see the pope presumptive achieve his real life’s ambition, to be an artiste, an actor for real, rather than an actor trapped in the Vatican. But no, there is no such pleasure granted to the audience.

In fact the story of a pope wandering unrecognized and incognito among the general public is a common tale with a long history. In the 1930s there was a sub-genre of films featuring heiresses working as waitresses, princesses passing as maids, millionaires as unemployed laborers, department store owners as shoe salesmen. It was basically Depression Era wish fulfillment played for laughs and romance. ROMAN HOLIDAY (1953) was a late example but the masterpiece of the sub-genre was SULLIVAN’S TRAVELS (1941, the same year as THE DEVIL IN MISS JONES). The idea of incognito journeys amongst the common people goes back through Mark Twain’s The Prince And The Pauper back to The Arabian Nights and the Caliph Harun al-Rashid going about Baghdad in disguise to see what was really happening to his subjects and what they believed about him. The big difference is that all of these stories have a Happy Ending.

Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, patience is exhausted, the curia leave the grounds and use more direct methods to get Melville back to the balcony and the masses of the faithful. Once there he delivers a message of such humility that at first the masses throb with delight in the anticipation of a new reign but then gives them some divesting bad news. The reaction of the other senior officials on the balcony with Cardinal Melville recall the faces Michelangelo painted in The Last Judgment, heads buried in the hands in grief. And it all ends there.

It could have gone either way and Moretti was brave in taking the less satisfying way. I recall the pseudo-Hitchcock picture, THE PRIZE (1963), about the Nobel Prize, where after two hours of kinetic who-ha, the prize is awarded and the on-looker, Leo G. Carroll (Hitchcock’s favorite actor), remarks about nothing ever happening at the awards. In Moretti’s version there is no going back. But, I don’t that WE HAVE A POPE will find an audience. One official Church type denounced it, but most of the wiser heads realized this was weak stuff and decided to let it just die a death. The worst thing would be to denounce it.

Think of BABY DOLL (1956), a real stinker, which was a big hit because it was condemned so strongly by the Church in the ’50s. All that would need to happen would be for that one man Inquisition, Bill Donohue, of the Catholic League, to get started on this and they might make some money on the picture. I remember when he got started on the Godard picture, HAIL MARY (1985) and he got a bunch of Monsignors to picket the picture. I know they didn’t see the movie because I considered myself something of a Godard expert at the time and it took me three viewings, the last two on a VCR stopping and starting, before I could figure out what the picture was about. And the charge that Mary was depicted as a contemporary woman being an outrage was idiotic to any intelligent person who has ever taken an art history class. Unless somehow someone can goad Bad Bill into raising a stink, WE HAVE A POPE won’t be around for long. This is a pity because Piccoli is pure magic, a living treasure to be savored and enjoyed while we still have him. Viva Piccoli!

Celestine V died soon after his incarceration, murdered, its been speculated, by his successor Boniface VIII, so that there could be no question as to who was really the Pope.  He was canonized as Saint Peter Celestine in 1313 during the Babylonian Captivity period of the papacy reputedly because King Philip of France hated Boniface.

On the other hand Dante reputedly put him in the antechamber to hell thusly:

I saw and recognized the shade of him
Who by his cowardice made the great refusal.

—Inferno III, 59-60

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