Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art

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PostPosted: Tue Oct 18, 2011 6:54 am 
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Lord, I am not worthy

Mike D'Angelo's Cannes AV Club report (as often happens) got it right: Nanni Moretti's new Habemus Papam is "slight but amusing, and often oddly touching." There is charm and something thought-provoking about this film, but those expecting some strong anti-papal satire will be disappointed. The title is what they declare at the Vatican (Latin for "We have a Pope") when a new Supreme Pontiff has been elected by the College of Cardinals. And the slim tale, in full Vatican dress, concerns a new His Holiness (Michel Piccoli) who feels too unworthy and can't go out to the balcony and face the faithful. Moretti himself plays a psychiatrist called in to figure out what's going on, who, when the electee escapes and wanders around Rome, becomes an activities leader for the cardinals focused on a volleyball tournament. As anybody will tell you, not just Mike, it's Piccoli who makes this "oddly touching," and even more. Piccoli is an immense yet modest presence, sad, timid, sweet, and wishing he'd become an actor. About that, he need not worry. Piccoli again proves that he's one of the great ones.

The spectacle of the men in red lined up and voting is impressive indeed, sequestered in a convincing mock-up of the Sistine Chapel at CineCittà, but it's hardly what you'd call exciting. The title means "We Have a Pope," or as D'Angelo more colloquially translates it, "We got us a pope." They don't have one at first. There are a series of votes, with the traditional puffs of black smoke sent up to tell spectators outside they have not succeeded, till finally votes (thought this isn't explained) are switched to a neutral candidate from competing favorites and Cardinal Melville (Piccoli) wins and shyly smiles in acceptance, or just unwillingness to protest. When he refuses to publicly announce his own election, however, the Vatican cannot report it to the press, or anyone. They put a fat Swiss guard in the pope's rooms with instructions to walk back and forth and cast a shadow on the curtains now and then so people think he is there. And that's when shrink Moretti and later Margherita Buy are called in to talk to the reluctant cardinal.

It's true I suppose as D'Angelo says that at first it seems Moretti "will be the Geoffrey Rush to Piccoli’s Colin Firth," but both the charm and the weakness of the film is that nothing is going to happen. When the female shrink comes in (Buy) and the cardinal loosens up a bit and admits he always wanted to be an actor, this is when things begin to click. The film becomes a kind of loosely-slung parable about responsibility and facades and role-playing. There's much ado from Vatincan front men (particularly one energetically played by Jerzy Stuhr), who keep the balls in the air, when really nothing is happening.

In the end Moretti's improvisational screenplay doesn't do what it could either with the drama of the narrative or the implications of the situation. Given the total control in the Vatican, it's implausible that the cardinal could be moved out to see the female shrink (comically cast as Moretti's character's ex-wife), and more implausible still that he could wind up wandering around and enter a theater with a troupe of actors rehearsing Chekhov's The Seagull, which he just happens to know by heart. Perhaps Moretti should have left this kind of thing to Rivette.

The sets and f/x and costumes work well to make the proceedings seem to be actually transpiring at the Vatican. The casting is fine. But you watch this because it's a great role for Piccoli, not for many other reasons. This is just a narrow conceit, floated out and allowed mostly to drift.

Habemus Papam was released in Italy in April, shown at Cannes in May, and subsequently at a number of international festivals. It opened in France September 7, where it was viewed for this review October 18. It opens in the UK December 2, 2011.

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