We Have a Pope (“Habemus Papem”). Directed by Nanni Moretti. 104 minutes (U.S. release 2012) Sacher Films, Fandango, Le Pacte, joint production. In Italian with subtitles.
Nanni Moretti’s 2011 film We Have a Pope, shows the strong feelings that attach to the pope and papacy, and worldly, spiritual, and human aspects of choosing a new pope. Although it is a fictional comedy- drama, We Have a Pope is a timely film, one whose U.S. release came in 2012, a year before Pope Benedict XVI announced his resignation and Francis I was elected. In the film, as recently in the news, Rome is filled with crowds of the faithful and the curious, all awaiting decisions of the conclave, while newsmen and various experts speculate on developments inside the Vatican. We Have a Pope begins with the College of Cardinals voting for the successor to St. Peter and, apart from one or two awkwardly ambitious men, the inner thoughts we hear as whispered prayers reveal a fervent desire of favorites to not be chosen. Finally, one Cardinal Melville (veteran French actor Michel Piccoli) is elected. The courteous, dignified, self-contained and almost sweet smile with which he reacts to his brother cardinals’ congratulations is truly revealing of him as a person and a priest, but emphatically not of his attitude to being made pope.
The pope presumptive declines to be introduced; in fact he cannot speak and can hardly breathe–a reaction initially regarded as a medical emergency. When no physical cause is detected, Professor Brezzi, a psychoanalyst (played by director Nanni Moretti) is consulted. When Professor Brezzi is not allowed to meet with Cardinal Melville in private or at length, he makes the audacious suggestion that the pope presumptive should consult with his estranged wife, whom Brezzi regards as the second best psychoanalyst. Brezzi insists his wife’s one weakness is to always diagnose “parental deficit” in her clients. In the course of an incognito trip outside Vatican City, Melville escapes his escort. He meets with Brezzi’s wife (Margherita Buy) several times without disclosing his identity, but reveals the hidden truth that he once longed to be an actor, a vocation at which his sister, not he, succeeded. In another scene, Melville stays in a hotel with actors, watches their rehearsals, and even tries to stand-in for a sick thespian. His delight in the theatre is clear; he can mouth the lines of the troupe’s Chekhov play that he attends when he is taken back to Vatican City.
According to Church rules, Brezzi, the cardinal electors, and Vatican staff, must remain in the Vatican until the new pope is acknowledged. Brezzi wiles away the time discussing medications and playing cards with the cardinals, talking about himself, and organizing a round robin volleyball tournament in which teams of cardinals compete based on their nationality or region. Even though the psychoanalyst is a religious skeptic, and the cardinals equally doubtful of the virtues of psychoanalysis, the men of faith and the man of Freud find common ground. Their potentially clashing systems of meaning and modes of addressing human suffering and dignity do not so much compete in the movie as co-exist, with Machiavellianism, competitiveness, selfishness, insight and compassion manifest in both camps.
Melville returns without a fight, but against his will to assume his holy office. While he doesn’t doubt his faith, he sincerely doubts his ability to be Il Papa. In fact, what he saw in his travels through Rome further convinced him of the complexity and depth of the people’s problems. He fears there is perhaps too big a “parental deficit” for him to overcome. Although he loves theatre and the stymied and self-defeating characters of Chekhov, he also knows the potential for artifice within Vatican pomp and protocol. How does one reconcile these matters without recourse to either psychoanalytic self-understanding or religious renunciation of the self in the name of duty? Melville resolves the situation with dignity and honesty, even if he cannot meet the apparent needs of the faithful or demands of the institutional Church.
Themes from We Have a Pope also appear in Moretti’s The Son’s Room (2001), which also probed the pride of a psychoanalyst. (The Church has only a bit part). The Son’s Room is beautiful and personal, while We Have a Pope adds sociological and theological dimensions to its character studies. Both offer lovely views of Italy and poignant looks at the uncertainties and pain that can appear in human lives even when people are strongly invested in theoretical and metaphysical certainties. Moretti’s psychoanalysts are calm, knowledgeable and professional, but also competitive and fallible guides to problems humans can’t escape despite the ministrations of those who allegedly hold the cures – the doctors of the mind and the doctors of the Church. Moretti narrates his characters’ journeys through grief and fear with strong regard for the accumulated wisdom of culture, religion, and the potentially transformative effects of people’s chance interactions in daily life. They are putatively comedy-dramas, but of a sweet sort that engagingly meld inherited traditions with the liveliness and spontaneity that emerge in everyday human interactions. Even when his films show people facing doubt and loss, they are works that enlarge our humanity.
Moretti’s work can be used in sociology, political science, history and other humanities courses to show how ideologies and belief systems play out in individual, community and organizational settings. Those interested in the European family, contemporary religiosity, or the Italian bourgeoisie will find much of interest in his work. Moretti doesn’t give us the glamorized land of a non-Italian’s dream and provides a useful frame for juxtaposing stereotypes versus social reality. Moretti’s portrayals of psychoanalysts will interest psychology students and anyone else seeking to navigate adult life and professional identity in a stressful environment.