Wednesday, May 2, 2012

We have a Pope (orig. Habemus Papam) [2011]

MPAA (not rated)  CNS/USCCB (L) Roger Ebert (3 1/2 Stars)  Fr. Dennis (3 Stars with the below explanation)

IMDb listing
CNS/USCCB review
Roger Ebert's review

We have a Pope (orig. Habemus Papam) is an Italian language/English subtitled film directed by Nanni Morretti who also co-wrote the film along with Francisco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli and costarred in the film (as the psychologist brought into to the story's mix as it played out).  The film serves as reminder to all that a film about the Church is not easy to make.

And I would suggest to readers here, to please make a gut-check for yourselves before proceeding further: If a film (even one which is basically a comedy) about the election of a Pope, where the election does go (somewhat hilariously, if as it progresses ever more poignantly) awry would make you concerned/queasy, then please don't read any further further here and don't see the film.  Almost certainly, this film will not be for you.

So why go see / review (and more or less positively) a film that one knows will be difficult for many viewers to bear?  Well, not surprisingly, for various not necessarily straight forward but hopefully poignant reasons.

Above all, I would wish that Americans, both Catholic and non, those who love the Church and those who frankly hate it, would come to see the movie FOR ITS ITALIAN-NESS.  I studied in the seminary for three years at my Order's international college in Rome where the primary language of both community life and instruction was Italian.  So I do think I know something of what I am talking about here, as I experienced it myself.  (And don't get me wrong, some in the Catholic Church in Italy would have their own objections to the movie and Italy famously has its own, err, how should one say this ... lively / "energetic" Press ;-).  However, my point here is this movie portrays the Catholic Church in a _very different way_ than what many Americans would be used to.  And to be blunt about it, the Catholic Church is portrayed in this film as neither Triumphant nor Evil (which seems to me to be the only allowed positions in American discourse with regards to the Catholic Church these days).  The Cardinals, ALL OF THEM, are portrayed in this film as likable, largely "grandfather" figures (and therefore worthy of respect _wisdom figures_) who the faithful (fedeli) wish well ("vogliono bene..."  Indeed, the most heartfelt way in Italian to say to someone "I love you" is to say "Te voglio bene" (which actually translates more closely to "I wish/want you well.").

So this film portrays the relationship between Cardinals and the people in this SWEET, POIGNANT, ITALIAN way: There are no murders, no conspiracies, no fighting, _even between the cardinals themselves_.  In the film, after the previous Pope died, (clearly using footage from the funeral of Pope John Paul II), the funeral was portrayed SOLEMNLY, (again POIGNANTLY), KINDLY -- a great man, the leader of the Chruch, il Papa, died.  And the people, the faithful, "the rest of the family", the Church, is authentically _sad_.

The drama and yes comedy of this film comes, of course, after the previous Pope's funeral when the College of Cardinals locks itself up behind the doors of the Sistine Chapel to elect the new Pope.  And there something very strange (and again, something IMHO very Italian) starts to happen: It becomes clear to the viewers that NONE of the perceived frontrunners for the Pope want the job.  They're all heard praying (and in their respective languages): "Oh, Lord, please not me." 

I suspect that most Americans would find this, at best, silly.  It would probably be inconceivable to most Americans today that someone who's worked his way up all the way to be Cardinal would NOT want to become Pope, especially if the position dropped into his lap.  However, I do think that this thought, while still somewhat silly (though not nearly as silly to the point of inconceivable in the United States), does appear to exist out there in the "collective unconscious" in Italy.

I say this because when I was studying in Italy in the 1990s, I saw another film incidentally also written and directed by Nanni Morretti called La Messa 'e Finita [1985] (meaning "The Mass is Finished" recalling the words said by the priest at the end of the Mass, continuing, of course with "Now go out and love and serve the Lord" [in the previous American-English Missal], "go out and proclaim the Gospel" [in the more recently approved one]).  In that film, a young and still relatively recently ordained priest announces to his parish that he's leaving the priesthood with the rest of the film explaining why.  And it becomes rather obvious.  He was getting virtually no emotional support from anybody: not from his family, not from his former friends, not from his parishioners.  All were quite busy in their own lives, often making horrible mistakes with those lives, but were too busy doing this... to care about him (or really anyone else outside of their own little worlds, contracting to their own little selves).  So after a couple of years of this, the priest leaves (and again by the end of the film, no viewer would be surprised...).

The current film, We have a Pope (orig. Habemus Papam), takes a similar tack.  The leading Cardinals, knowing the enormous problems facing the Church all beg God not to select them.  Their prayers are answered, and after a number of days, a completely different Cardinal is elected Pope.  But the newly elected Pope (played by Michel Piccoli) doesn't really want the job either.  So after the other Cardinals all congratulate him, and he's vested as the new Pope and they all come to the balcony on top of St. Peter's facing St. Peter's square to announce "Habemus Papam (we have a Pope)," the new Pope has a panic attack, and prior to the public seeing him, flees down the stairs and locks himself up in the private quarters of the Vatican.

What to do now?  Well that's the rest of the movie ... Yes, it's all embarrassing.  And _mercifully_ the only media coverage portrayed in the film is that of the generally kind/supportive Italian media, which while certainly enjoying scandals, nevertheless doesn't subscribe to the "go for the jugular"/"shoot all prisoners" approach characteristic of our divided American media today.  The general line of the "Italian media" portrayed is that while truly grinning from ear-to-ear (and beyond) saying to itself "Wow!  Has the Vatican gotten itself into an unbelievable mess!" and continuing then to ask whoever could be found to ask, "Come-on guys, tell us who did the Cardinals pick ...?" but then explaining, "We're only asking this because we just want to give the big guy a big hug ... corraggio (lit. "courage/take heart") ... 'cause we well know it must be crushingly awful to be Pope these days!" ;-)

The Cardinals bring in an eminent psychologist (played by the film's director Nanni Moretti).  They want him to psychoanalyze him right in front of them.  The initial conversation the psychologist has with the cardinals, about 50 of them, right in front of the scared/depressed newly elected Pope about what questions are "in bounds" (almost nothing) and "out of bounds" (almost everything) is priceless.  But the Cardinals are not being cruel.  They're family, they want him to get better, but clearly don't seem to have a clue that this can't possibly work.  The Pope's spokesman / interim secretary (played by Jerzy Stuhr) tries to get the Pope (who no one has yet seen as Pope) a little more privacy by making him an appointment with another psychologist (played by Margherita Buy) outside the confines of the Vatican.  But of course, the new Pope (still no one knows that he's the new Pope) takes the opportunity to ditch his handlers.  And now there's a somewhat confused, and certainly anxious older man, who in any other profession would long since be retired wandering the streets of Rome (HOW CAN ONE NOT FEEL SORRY FOR HIM?)  He also happens to be the new Pope, but no one knows that and the folks in the Vatican would JUST DIE if this got out.  Much more ensues ...

I admit, I don't like the ending.  Yet, if you've read this far, you'd probably understand its logic.   The film, from beginning to end asks the honest question:  Even if you believe and perhaps ESPECIALLY IF YOU BELIEVE ... would you really want that job?

To this end, I'd say that this is a brave movie.  It's a very Italian movie.  And as disconcerting perhaps as the movie is, I'm glad that Moretti, et al made it.  God bless you and vi voglio bene, Italia!  Vi voglio bene!

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