April 24, 2012

MOVIES: We Have a Pope (Nanni Moretti, 2011/US 2012)

The Italian comedy Habemus Papam (being released in the US as We Have a Pope) starts off looking like a sharp, biting satire. The Catholic cardinals have gathered to elect a new pope, and as the camera pans across the room, we hear the thoughts of several cardinals. They're thinking as one: "Please, Lord, not me."

After several ballots, longshot candidate Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is elected, and as he is about to be revealed to the crowd waiting outside the Conclave, he breaks down. "I can't do this," he says, and flees the room. In desperation, the Cardinals bring in a therapist (Nanni Moretti, who also directed) to help Melville get through his panic.

And then the movie turns to sentimental mush. Melville escapes from the Vatican and spends a few days wandering through Rome, trying to get a grip on his fear; the few cardinals who know of Melville's disappearance try to keep the secret from the other cardinals, while putting the best possible face on the new pope's refusal to appear; the doctor, who is not allowed to leave until the pope is announced, organizes a volleyball tournament to help the cardinals pass the time. It's syrupy sweet and cloying, and the bite of the first ten minutes is entirely gone.

The movie largely avoids the serious issues that are raised by Melville's breakdown, or any of the challenges facing the Catholic Church that might make the papacy an unappealing career challenge. Such things are addressed only very briefly in the movie's final scene, which takes a sudden turn for the grim and bleak. Had the movie maintained the satiric tone of its opening, that ending might have worked. But coming after an hour of "oh, isn't he a nice old man" goo, it's too abrupt a shift in tone.

Piccoli is an endearing presence, and Moretti has a few interesting "what have I gotten myself into" moments. But the movie can't make up its mind what kind of story it wants to tell, and as a result it winds up telling none of them very well.

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