Even non-Catholics can recall the fervor surrounding the election of the last pope. It seemed to drown out all other important news items. I couldn’t have cared less, but for Catholics, it seemed as if life itself simply couldn’t move forward until the new pope was decreed. We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) (2011), a new comedy by Nanni Moretti, deals with a newly elected pope who runs away from the enormous responsibility that comes with the job. The film will play all next week at E Street Cinema beginning Friday.
The opening of the film begins with the death of the last pope. I would not be surprised if much of the footage was taken directly from news stories about the death of Pope John Paul II. The conclave makes a procession, and one reporter frantically attempts to interview the cardinals as they’re in prayer. The Holy See’s spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) comes by and gives him the boot. A pretty charming opening. We then see this interviewer reporting outside the church while the cardinals are in deliberation. The film makes a joke of the last pope’s election by including a scene in which reporters have a misunderstanding about the colored smoke. Remember that?
As ballots are being counted, every Cardinal in the room is silently praying not to be chosen. When the final tally is drawn, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is elected the new pope. He seems fine, until the time comes for him to make his first speech and reveal himself to the public. He has a kind of breakdown and runs out of the room in hysterics. The Holy See’s spokesman brings in an egotistical, atheist psychiatrist (played by the director) to try to have a counseling session. But, it must be done in front of the other Cardinals. And personal questions cannot be asked. Here was a scene that could have been comedy gold, but the director, quite literally, gives up and walks out of the room. However, his character can’t leave the building entirely. For he now knows the pope’s identity and, like everyone else, is no longer allowed contact with the outside world until the issue is resolved. A great premise, but the script isn’t strong enough to support the tragicomedy angle that it later wants to take.
Like in the counseling session sequence, this movie seems afraid to stay with some of its scenes when they’re working. As if Moretti ran out of dialogue and just decided to move on. Other scenes, including a volleyball tournament that the psychiatrist organizes, go on for way too long. Outside of the confines of the Vatican, Melville tries to find himself. This leads him to a group of theater performers and some poorly handled scenes that only work partially. We like Melville, and it’s funny to see how those left in the Vatican bide their time, but what’s missing in these two stories is a common thread that can be strung together during the conclusion.
The ending of We Have a Pope is something awful that collapses everything that came before it. Any good karma that the goofy volleyball game had garnered is kicked right out of the window when the finale hits. The film didn’t have to end happily, but something, anything, should have been resolved before the credits rolled. I am reminded of My Piece of the Pie (Ma part du gâteau), last year’s delightful French comedy that decided to pull a 180 in its third act. This turnabout was meant to be artful and make a point, but does neither. The filmmaker believes he is giving his movie a trendy finish here. He’s not, because this unexpected ending comes with no viewpoint or thesis whatsoever. It is a cop out. Cardinal Melville may get what he desires, but the audience is left wanting.
We Have a Pope will play all next week at E Street Cinema starting April 27. The film is also currently streaming On Demand from IFC. Other offerings from E Street Cinema can be found here. And here is the film’s official site.