Pope on the run


We Have A Pope (M). Director: Nanni Moretti. Starring: Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr. 104 minutes

The opening scenes of We Have A Pope depict a procession of cardinals who have convened for the papal conclave. As we gaze upon this solemn parade we are struck that beneath the ceremonial garb and holy demeanour, these are old men — a fact that speaks of both experience and weariness.

Once confined within the Sistine Chapel, we watch as each cardinal deliberates excruciatingly over his ballot paper. The election of a pope requires a decision made with gravitas and discernment. Roman filmmaker Moretti's characters clearly take this charge seriously.

Up until this moment, Moretti's portrayal of the papal conclave has emphasised piety and ritual. Yet now, as the cardinals chew over the momentous decision, their unspoken prayers begin to clamour, in voiceover. Each man is praying a variation of the same words: 'Not me. Please, not me.'

Humanity is clearly at the heart of Moretti's film. The cardinals' prayers echo the biblical account of Jesus pleading with the Father to unburden him of his fate. They remind us that piety does not preclude ordinary human fear and self-doubt.

Unexpectedly, soft-spoken Cardinal Melville (Piccoli) emerges as the unexpected winner of the papal race. For him, this honour bestowed by his peers and by God is overbearing. Before he can be presented to the multidudinous faithful who throng outside, he suffers a panic attack.

The conclave rules require the cardinals to remain isolated until the pope has been announced. So Vatican spokesman Rajski (Stuhr) seeks a swift resolution. He secrets Melville, incognito, to see a therapist in the city. Melville, plagued by doubt and depression, gives him the slip, and disappears.

Humanity remains front and centre. Melville's recalcitrance is not put down to weakness. He is a fallible human being who, we learn, gave up his 'ordinary' dreams in order to pursue his religious vocation. The film focuses on his genuine efforts to reorder his emotional, mental and spiritual state.

It interposes his existential struggle with the other cardinals' long and anxious wait, and with Rajski's often humourous attempts to protect them from the truth — that he has 'lost' the pope.

The cardinals are portrayed somewhat irreverently, as they bicker over card games, pop pills to help them sleep, and play a clumsy game of volleyball to pass the time. The portrayal is not unkind, however, and contains much pathos. We are aware throughout of the devastating implications for these faithful cardinals should Melville's human foibles subvert the most revered conclave process.

Moretti himself appears as a psychoanalyst, Professor Brezzi, who is initially brought in to try to assist the new pope, but whose efforts are frustrated by the cardinals; he cannot, in knowledge of the pope's identity, be allowed to ask him the kinds of questions psychoanalysts need to ask.

Subsequently 'locked in' with the cardinals after Melville disappears, Brezzi personifies the 'outsider' inside the closed world of the conclave (a perspective that we, the audience, share). Again, Moretti favours warmth over cynicism: as Brezzi, he encourages the cardinals in their collegiality, while also offering a few pinpricks to their piety.  

The Catholic Church has more than a billion members worldwide. To lead it is an immense responsibility. Irreverence notwithstanding, We Have A Pope stands as a gracious gesture, free of Church politics, to those who accept that responsibility. Surely, none would do so blithely.

Tim KroenertTim Kroenert is Assistant Editor of Eureka Street

Topic tags: Tim Kroenert, We Have A Pope, papal conclave



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Existing comments

Tim, Your throw away line at the end 'The Catholic Church has more than a billon members worldwide' cannot be serious. What do you mean? I was baptised a Roman Catholic, went to Catholic schools to the seminary, ordained, a peritus at Vatican 2, but I no longer wish to be identified with the Institutional Roman Church, with Jesus yes, with the sexually abused by clergy yes, with the Buddha yes,with Gandhi and Mandala yes, with Kazantakis yes, with the Khmer peoples yes, with South Melbourne Swans yes. But with the bishops of Australia no, with the church cover ups and Catholic Church Insurance no, with the pope no. Please exclude me, and I suspect another half a billion, in your crunching numbers. Mike Parer
Michael Parer | 08 December 2011

Re Michael Parer's comments -- take out the Melbourne Swans and the rest is me! Re the film: I have a more pessimistic view than that portrayed here. I do not believe Ratzinger was in the least reluctant to take the job, nor the selected voters (the cardinals) so motivated by 'piety' or 'spirituality' to elect him.
Heil Ratzinger!
Ted Hewitt | 08 December 2011

Thanks Mike and Ted for your comments.I too would take exception to the Sydney Swines and I have not been keen on Ghandi's drinking habits.Tim's comment'winner of the papal race'may indicate a subversive element of his thinking.Whatever the H.Spirit is supposed to be doing there,the factional lines are well and truly drawn long before they get to the Sistine Chapel.In fact these days they wouldn't
get a guernsey unless their stripe was pretty clear to the club president.
Chris Flamer | 08 December 2011


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