Sacred aging man: We Have a Pope **1/2

By Dennis Hartley

(Originally posted on Digby’s Hullabaloo on April 28, 2012)

I’m sorry, but I don’t want to be an emperor.

-Charlie Chaplin

I now quit public affairs and I lay down my burden.

-Edward VIII

 Take this job and shove it.

-Johnny Paycheck

Here’s something you or I will likely never be asked: “Acceptasne electionem de te canonice factam in Summum Pontificem (Do you accept your canonical election as Supreme Pontiff?).”  Now, some of us may have rehearsed an Oscar, or Grammy award acceptance speech, just for fun. Or contemplated a response to: “Do you prefer to receive your Lotto winnings in lump sum, or as annual payments?”

Realistically, of course, we are more likely to face queries like “Paper…or plastic?” or “How do you plead to these charges?” However, in the event you have speculated about how the world looks from inside the Popemobile, a Franco-Italian import called We Have a Pope offers a test drive.

 Actually, this newly elected Pope, formerly known as Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), is not so eager to leave his gilded cage and flit onto the St. Peter’s Square balcony. His unexpected response to “that question” is to go into a full-blown panic attack. As puzzled speculation among the thousands waiting patiently in the Square spins into dark rumor, the pontiff’s handlers brainstorm ways to snap Melville out of his accelerating malaise. They decide to take drastic measures. Loathe as they are to do so, they bring in a (gulp) psychoanalyst (director Nanni Moretti) to see if he can get right to the heart of the matter.

It  becomes apparent that the hapless shrink (a non-believer, no less) cannot ply his trade with a flock of hand-wringing cardinals eavesdropping to make sure he doesn’t ask any “inappropriate” questions. He is chagrined to learn that Vatican rules dictate that the cardinals be present; even more so when he finds out that he is to be sequestered on the premises until “we have a Pope”.

Exasperated, he puts in a plug for his ex-wife, also a psychoanalyst, with a caveat that she is obsessed with “parental deficit”. Melville is whisked off (unbeknownst to the cardinals), for a session with the ex (Margherita Buy). It still doesn’t take. Shortly after the visit, Melville gives his handlers the slip. The rest of the film is divided between following Melville’s misadventures around Rome, and how the boys back at the ranch are killing time (the chief handler has convinced them that Il papa is resting comfortably up in his apartment).

Moretti has some great ideas here (he also co-wrote, with Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli), but none of them gel, making his film an uneven and ultimately unsatisfying affair. The setup reminded me of Theodore J. Flicker’s 1967 political satire,  The President’s Analyst,  which likewise framed the narrative by humanizing someone who holds a larger-than-life position of power and responsibility by depicting them to be just as neurotic as anybody else.

Moretti seems unsure where he’s going; just when you think he’s delivering a humanist character study, he lurches into silly slapstick (an overlong segment with the cardinals playing “prison volleyball” falls flat). If it is intended as satire, the targets are too soft (I’m shocked! Shocked to learn that the Holy See is a cloistered world of gossipy, fussy old men, padding around in slippers and funny robes!).

There is one intriguing moment where the psychoanalyst, who has been killing time reading the Bible (the only book  in his room), holds it up in front of the cardinals and says, “In this book, are all the symptoms of depression: feelings of guilt, weight loss, suicidal thoughts.” But alas, Moretti tosses the idea out there and then abandons it. 

The film works best when Piccoli is onscreen. His performance is warm, funny and touching, particularly when he takes his Roman Holiday-esque  sojourn through the city. In these scenes, his character reminded me of the angel in Wim Wenders’ WIngs of Desire. who elects to leave a hermetic bubble of rituals and spiritual contemplation to revel in the simple joys of everyday life; to rediscover his humanity. It’s only in these brief moments, that Moretti’s film, and his star, shines. It reminds us that, at the end of the day, the man behind “The Pope” is nothing but a man.

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