By Aurore Duiguo
Italian director Nanni Moretti’s “Habemus Papam” is a movie about a wandering, about a man who has fled.
It is the wandering of a newly elected pope (played by Michel Piccoli), who is chosen against his will. “Habemus Papam” (“We Have A Pope”) is about a man who believes that he can’t assume this huge burden. In fact, he does not want to.
After a new pontiff is elected, tradition dictates that he will appear through a balcony window at the Vatican to introduce himself to the faithful. But before this can happen, the chief of the College of Cardinals is called upon to reveal the name of the next head of the Church. The new Pope is completely shattered by his selection.
He begins to scream and can’t stand up. His disconcerting reaction reveals his uneasiness and makes us understand the existential crisis he is experiencing. Dwarfed by the role he is about to assume, he is unable to make up his mind about being Pope. Everything is on hold.
Because of this, an atheist psychoanalyst is brought in to talk to the reluctant elected Cardinal. Before he can be helped, the new Pope flees the walls of the Vatican to the narrow streets of Rome, leaving the psychoanalyst and the religious men waiting. No one can leave the conclave if he doesn't introduce himself to the faithful. The psychoanalyst decides to organize an international volleyball tournament among the Cardinals.
“Habemus Papam” is, in many respects, a surprising movie.
Moretti could have taken the opportunity to easily criticize the Roman Catholic church by alluding to the recent scandals that have shaken it, scandals such as pedophilia and prostitution. This is not the case, and, thank God (if I dare), if he did, it would have made the movie very boring and, above all, too topical.
Additionally, while watching “Habemus Papam,” we could think that Moretti, who, in addition to directing, also perfectly acts the role of the psychoanalyst and co-wrote the dramatic comedy with Francesco Piccolo and Frederica Pontremoli, might have overwhelmed the movie with his presence. The reality is different. Moretti’s directing is simple and refined. He steps aside to give carte blanche to the great Piccoli, superb in his dignity as the new Pope.
Although Moretti brilliantly portrays his character, he doesn’t push himself into the foreground. By writing and choosing the role of the psychoanalyst, Moretti could have placed his character at the center of an ideological debate between psychoanalysis and religion. The outcome is different. With the escape of the Pope, the film we might expect, namely a struggle between the psychoanalyst and the new pontiff doesn’t exist. What is surprising is that once the elected Pope is away, Moretti’s character does not seek to benefit from this flight to get into a debate of ideas with the Cardinals. He adopts a neutral point of view and observes these religious leaders instead of debating with them. Thus, Moretti acts like an altruistic director and actor, serving his movie and his cast.
This astonishing film makes these religious leaders more human. Moretti the director considers these Cardinals as men, not merely as members of the clergy. Indeed, what the director highlights are the people themselves and not the positions they hold. Cardinals have flaws attributable to their personalities and not to their religious charge. Although all of them are gregarious, differences remain in their behaviors. By competing in the volleyball tournament, which is neutral ground par excellence, each of them acts differently. This enables us to understand these differences because they are men first. This humanity is the only common agreement between psychoanalysis and religion. An ideological debate is not needed.
Moretti’s directorial work here is also surprising because it completely alters the perception of Catholicism.
By targeting the Pope, its supreme leader, the film makes the Catholic religion more human. The movie questions the role of the pontiff. What is a Pope? Is he primarily a spiritual guide? Maybe. In the film, he is also a man who wonders if he will be equal to his task. This responsibility implies a considerable humility and calls for an ability to question oneself. Paradoxically, this humility and this doubt also seems to be questioned by Cardinals and the faithful. Yet, how could a man be able to guide and understand people without feeling the same fears and the same emotions that they feel?
“Habemus Papam” is timeless because it targets the pontifical function, just as it could have been about the office of President or the duty of a sovereign regarding crucial issues. The movie asks the question: Does duty require a person to renounce one’s freedom and to make huge sacrifices? Is being elected more important than having skills? Is it more important to do the job you love, or to do the job for which you are gifted?
In addition, what is also timeless is the fact that these questions can apply to the rest of mortals. This period of questioning is universal because it is experienced by all of us, regardless of age, country, nationality, ethnicity, or gender. Whatever the reason - intellectually, financially, or physically, everybody at some point is obliged to make sacrifices in their lives, to give up the dreams of their youth if he or she can’t support these dreams. Sooner or later, this crucial moment in our life comes back to haunt us.
In the film, the new Pope has the opportunity to say NO. He needs courage and reflection to make a choice. This choice will tell us if this man will not only overcome the shackles of his past, but also his beliefs about himself. Will he overcome the sacrosanct notion, so widespread today, which insists that you must accept something because you have been chosen. Or the idea that you must make use of all of your skills or be seen as a failure. The movie asks the question: Will the new pontiff again find his childlike soul, regardless of the price that might be paid?
In this sense, “Habemus Papam” is an ode to hope.
Aurore Duiguo is a free-lance writer living in France.
Nanni Moretti’s “Habemus Papam” has played at film festivals around the world, including Cannes, Toronto, and Sao Paulo. It is a much talked about movie wherever it has been shown.