Pope Fiction, by David Bax
Nanni Moretti’s new film begins with a comically inept but low-key television newsman reporting from the Vatican about the selection of a new pope. Combining the solemnity of the proceedings with the humor of the reporter makes clear that this film is going to be tongue-in-cheek in its dealing with the papacy. Truly, We Have a Pope does, in its better moments, offer a warm indictment of the antiquated institution of the Roman Catholic demigod. By the film’s end, though, the indictment has become entirely too warm.
Upon the death of a pope, the College of Cardinals meets at the Vatican to select a new head of the church from among their number. One of the best jokes early on in this film is the realization that none of them really wants the job. They do eventually land on a choice and the new pope, just as he’s about to address the thousands of faithful camped below his balcony and the millions around the world, suffers something of a panic attack and retreats to his quarters. He sees a psychiatrist and then, at the first chance he gets, he runs away from the Vatican, rents a hotel room and spends the rest of the film hiding out in Rome. Meanwhile, the papal spokesman convinces everyone he’s still sequestered in his apartment. The therapist, forced to remain on the grounds until things are settled, spends some quality time with the cardinals.
These scenes, of the doctor hanging out with the cardinals, organizing a volleyball tournament and the like, are indicative of the dry comedy at which Moretti excels in this film. Most of the funniest moments go to tertiary characters such as the reporter, the Australian cardinals and the guard ordered by the spokesman to occasionally move around behind the curtains in the pope’s apartment so people think he’s up there. It’s little touches and moments like these that keep the film buoyant, even as it begins to falter.
Moretti gets wonderful cinematic mileage out of the baroque beauty and the pageantry of these superannuated traditions and settings. The brightly colored robes and headpieces are, on their own, visually engaging while also, in their representation of unchanging ritual, providing comic contrast to the nervous uncertainty of the situation. And, of course, the mere sight of these men in their outfits playing volleyball is appealing.
I’ve mentioned the volleyball tournament twice now and that’s no mistake. It’s not only a source of fun but in terms of sheer screen time, it’s a big part of the film’s second half. Yet it’s not just the percentage of runtime that draws me back to it. As the movie goes on, the events at the Vatican become far more enjoyable than the placid details of the pope’s wanderings.
One aspect, though, of the pope’s storyline that does fascinate is the story he tells about who he is. He claims, to the people he meets, to be an actor. It’s here that the film’s themes begin to come into focus. A few days before, this man was a cardinal, like all the other cardinals. Now he is pope. The angel Gabriel did not appear to him nor did he pull a sword from a stone. He was elected by the all too empirical means of people writing names on ballots and suddenly he is God’s chief representative on Earth. He feels like he is a pretender, playing a part. All the while, his former fellow cardinals are having fun playing team games. Perhaps Moretti is saying, or at least allowing his therapist character to say, that a group should not look to an individual for guidance but rely on its own strength.
Whatever We Have a Pope is trying to say, it never quite gets around to it. It either runs out of energy or loses its nerve. In either case, what was once the story of a single individual calling into question a nearly two thousand year old institution becomes a trite tale of late life crisis.