A crowd waits with bated breath in St. Peter’s Square, eyeing the empty balcony. Suddenly, a red-robed man emerges to cheers, uttering the words they have waited to hear: “Habemus papam.” We have a pope. Suddenly, there is a wail from behind him. He turns, then sadly returns inside, leaving the new pope’s identity unknown.
So begins the central conflict of We Have a Pope: what happens when a man is handed the papacy, but doesn’t want the job?
One of the most affecting pieces of television I watched this year was Mike Flanagan’s meditation on religion, Midnight Mass. Having experienced my own tumultuous upbringing in and departure from Catholicism, the questions and conflicts the series raised resonated deeply. After the finale, I read every think piece I could find (including this fantastic take from The Gist’s own Daniel Carlson). And so, when I found We Have a Pope streaming on Plex, it seemed the perfect time to revisit one of my favorite cinematic gems.
The film was released in Italy in 2011 under the title Habemus Papam — the official Latin declaration of a new papacy — and benefits from director Nanni Moretti’s signature style of pensive comedy. Moretti has garnered international acclaim for his work as a writer, director, and actor, including the Cannes Palme d’Or for his 2001 drama about parental grief, The Son’s Room (La stanza del figlio). For me, however, it is his 1993 semi-autobiographical triptych, Dear Diary (Caro diario) that best encapsulates his uniquely powerful brand of “dramedy” — particularly his reenactment of his own cancer diagnosis that highlights the laughable absurdities of modern medicine. He brings this same thoughtful balance to his satire of the Roman Catholic Church in We Have a Pope.
At the center of the film is Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who, upon being elected pope by the College of Cardinals, suffers a complete mental breakdown in the face of this enormous responsibility. His name is particularly apt: Melville becomes an Italian Bartleby, the Scrivener of sorts, repeatedly telling his colleagues, “Non ce lo faccio” (“I can’t do this”). Desperate to resolve the issue and present the new pope to the awaiting world, the Vatican brings in Rome’s best psychoanalyst (Moretti) to help get Melville through his distress.
Unfortunately, the two men don’t spend much time together. Instead, the new pope manages to escape his security team and lose himself in the streets of Rome, where he wanders in contemplation of his life leading up to this role that he feels so inadequate to assume. This leaves the atheist psychoanalyst quite literally trapped in the Vatican, where he decides to amuse himself at the expense of the holy company he now keeps.
Moretti’s film is a confrontation of that which we deem sacred and that which we deem mundane — and nowhere is that more clear than in the time we spend with the cardinals. The grandeur of the Vatican is captured in full, the imposing frescoes of the Sistine Chapel seeming to drown the new pope in his strife. Cinematographer Alessandro Pesci captures the Church as the Church wishes to be seen — beautiful, but with a constant reminder of its immense power.
Yet, what takes place inside those hallowed walls could not be further from their resplendence. The psychoanalyst leads the group of cardinals in a range of exceptionally earthly activities: sharing the newspaper’s odds of each cardinal’s likelihood to be elected pope , teaching them the difference between their respective sleep aids, engaging in a very competitive game of bridge. Perhaps the most iconic of all is the volleyball tournament he organizes between cardinals of the various continents. Filmed in slow motion, it is the film’s funniest and most absurd scene by far.
There’s a point to all the madness, though. While the cardinals engage in this frivolity, they seem completely free from the burden of the power that they have vested upon their colleague, Melville. Save the most serious of the group, Cardinal Gregori (Renato Scarpa), the rest appear mostly unbothered by the fact that the newly elected pope is in distress, caring only that the responsibility does not fall on their shoulders so that they can continue to enjoy their lifestyles of relative luxury.
Meanwhile, Melville walks the streets of the city for three days, in anonymity and reflection. Far from the halls of the Vatican, on public buses and in grubby motel rooms, he feels the weight of his flight as he watches the world grapple with his absence. Yet his focus is mainly internal: He finally admits his own regrets in life, and begins to recognize that perhaps the altar was not the stage he wanted. And in doing so, he finds moments of joy — but an earthly joy, one based in sharing time with the people he meets along his journey. These scenes (even when they are gently funny) are filmed with a quiet care that invests them with their own strange sense of holiness.
Melville’s part might not be as impactful if not for Michel Piccoli. In very little words, he captures both the tension and the release that comes with a man’s realization that he has devoted his life to the wrong cause. Piccoli seems at once lost and uncomfortably aware of his position, and of what he needs to do. It’s a sensitive and bittersweet performance that I’m grateful to have seen.
Much like Midnight Mass, Moretti’s is a film that forces us to face deeply human tensions through a thoughtful critique of the religious institution. In its closing, when Melville finally makes the decision that hangs over the entire film, we see a grace and awareness far more impressive than the immense ceilings of the Sistine Chapel.