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Nanni Moretti commits a cardinal cinema
Like the classic runaway bride, the skittish lead character in Nanni Moretti’s emotionally generous and moving tragicomedy Habemus Papam wears a sumptuous gown, has the air of the unsullied and suffers from severe commitment issues.
The runaway, Melville (Michel Piccoli), a French cleric who’s just been elected Pope, dons ceremonial white, sits in the Vatican forcing smiles and rapidly sags under the weight of the billion souls he’s charged with leading. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and so too the miter. What haunts Melville is whether he can embrace his role as pontiff.
Habemus Papam is the story of a specific crisis of conscience with larger reverberations, if not necessarily those you might expect from Mr. Moretti. (The English title, We Have A Pope, suggests auctions and game shows, while the Latin comes wreathed in incense-perfumed mystery.)
Despite its director being an Italian leftist best known for films like Caro Diario and The Son’s Room, politics initially appears to have gone on hiatus in Habemus Papam, which opens with the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The ceremony and the sight of thousands of bodies pressing into St. Peter’s Square instantly shifts the movie into a serious register that continues when Mr. Moretti cuts to lines of chanting old men in red, presumably the College of Cardinals, entering what looks like the Vatican.
It’s all very exotic and solemn, or would be if the cardinals didn’t then pass a scrum of reporters who, separated from the clerics by ropes and stanchions, look as if they were covering the red carpet at the Oscars. ‘Cardinal,’ demands one tv journalist, thrusting a microphone at the clerics, ‘could we have a statement?’
None of the cardinals dignify the question with a response, but with this scene Mr. Moretti, with characteristic efficiency, makes his own quiet statement about the connections among religion, spectacle and the media. These associations have already been implied in the opening funeral images, but Mr. Moretti’s touch is so light here that it feels as if he’s making an offhand observation about the church instead of building an argument. (He’s doing both.)
And so it goes as the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel and, after a few ballot rounds, select Melville. As the faithful wait for him publicly to acknowledge his new role, an openly uneasy, increasingly unsure Melville hesitates and then abruptly runs off, seemingly leaving his flock hanging.
Except that Melville, wearing civilian clothing and still an unknown to the outside world, doesn’t abandon the faithful but walks among their numbers, at first with some confusion and then with mounting confidence and openness. In Rome stores and on buses he discovers people whose humanity helps awaken something human in him. Mr. Piccoli, a giant of European cinema, brings dignity to the role and an innocence that’s less childlike than unworldly.
There’s something so unforced about Habemus Papam that its assertion of papal humility and humanity rather than infallibility might be easy to miss. But it’s there, tucked in a story about a pope who describes himself with bittersweet self-knowing as an actor and meets a troupe rehearsing Chekhov’s "Seagull".
The Chekhov underscores Melville’s disappointment in his life and also works as a melancholic counterpoint to the volleyball matches at the Vatican arranged by a psychiatrist (Mr. Moretti) who’s been hired to guide the pope through his crisis. Mr. Moretti finds broad comedy in the antics of some clerics, who can seem as sweet as children, but in Melville there is pathos and there is tragedy, and not his alone.
– Manolha Dargis, The New York Times
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