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Habemus Papam (English title – We Have A Pope) is the new controversial film by Nanni Moretti, written together with Federica Pontremoli and Francesco Piccolo, included in the competition at the Cannes Film Festival 2011. If you think you’ll be watching the usual anticlerical story ‘à la Moretti’ – maybe about the last Vatican’s pedophilia scandals – then you are on the wrong track. In fact, in contrast, it deals with a stunning, a bit surrealistic and incredibly human comedy, which – perhaps by good fortune – tells the story of a completely different church, that which lives only in the Italian director’s mind.
After the death of John Paul II and a tense conclave, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is chosen as the new chief of Christianity, but a sudden sense of inadequacy and inability to cope with such a responsibility leaves him irreversibly paralyzed by a paroxysmal attack of pain.
Essentially the whole movie is about such impotence in facing the hundreds of faithful crowding St. Peter’s Square overeager to know and listen to the new Pontiff. “No, I can’t do it” is the only thing the newly elected is able to shout.
In order to sort the problem out quickly, one of the best psychiatrists around, played by Nanni Moretti, is urgently called for help. Thus, for some days he happens to live in the uncanny world of Vatican, organizing volleyball matches, getting involved in nocturnal game of cards, or just observing lots of other non-institutional and abnormal cardinal’s pursuits such as exercise bicycle.
Nonetheless, the Pope does not listen to reason; indeed he decides to flee, and after wandering around town without having a certain identity any longer, he seems to feel partly reconnected to the faces, the sounds, the smells, and so on of the true vibrant reality. More than a work about the church, Habemus Papam is a film about direction and recitation techniques, Even the best actor – or director – will sooner or later fail, especially when having an extremely successful and ritualized life. Either you are able to be completely absorbed by your role, or you get lost. After all, we already knew Moretti was an expert at directing such meta-cinematic plots.
As a result, it’s no wonder that the film in question if full of references to theatre. In particular the masterpiece which is The seagull by Anton Chekhov: you can live your own life without knowing how to do it, simply changing topic, sidestepping, skipping…This may be the meaning of that funny scene in which a Swiss Guard pretends the Pontiff is in his private room by moving a (theatrical) red curtain: is it a metaphor of living? Or just a comedy? The film does not explain it, also because it doesn’t want to teach anything, but just to be enjoyed. Sure, it consists of 102 mins of pure entertainment, thanks, above all, to a Vatican thoroughly rebuilt in Cinecittà studios (Rome), the usual top performance of the French famous actor Piccoli, and some unforgettable shots. And again, it is not a mere coincidence that Habemus Papam has mainly been filmed in interiors, kind of deep and complex architectonic boxes like bird cages, where each movement has been planned in advanced: warning, exceptions could be punishment with loss.
In fact, what would happen if the next Pope, despite being ‘chosen by God,’ didn’t feel able to do it? What if a great director, such as Nanni Moretti, paralyzed by his public’s expectations and not finding himself anymore, decided to abandon the stage, stating like Hermann Melville’ Bartelby, “I would prefer not to”? Luckily it has not been the case of Habemus Papam, which has been successfully realized, and does not seem to stop going around the world. Therefore, perhaps, the only conclusion is not to take yourself too seriously – and if even our laic complex psychoanalytic theories appears ridiculous to those darwinians who believe life is meaningless and just a role-playing game, then we have no other choice than to play good.
So, still in doubts about what to watch at the cinema this week?