I read about it in Dan Brown’s pulp thriller ‘Angels & Demons’, how a Pope is elected at the Vatican after the demise of the Pope. Cardinals from all over the Christendom assemble at the Vatican and they are locked in a room, and they sign the ballots and vote. Once the Pope is elected, white smoke bellows from the building, and people rejoice, before a representative of the church appear on the balcony and announces: ‘Habemus Papam’ (We Have A Pope).
Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti’s ‘Habemus Papam’ begins with this election. The Pope is dead and we need a new one. All the cardinals have gathered and place is fraught with emotions, strong emotions, and just one emotion — “dear god, let it not be me.” Being a pope is a responsibility and none of the cardinals ready to bear it.
Though the film has been billed as a comedy, and there are comic movements, especially when the director himself appears as a psychiatrist (He is best psychiatrist in Rome and his wife left him because he was the best, and his wife is obsessed with “parental deficiency.”), Moretti doesn’t want to make fun of the Church, or use it for cheap thrills, as the Dan Brown novel and the film version by Ron Howard did.
It’s all serious business. After several failed attempt, the college of cardinals finally choose Cardinal Melville as the next pope. He wasn’t even a forerunner in the elections. Poor Melville (played with enduring gravitas by Michel Piccoli) is understandably shell-shocked. The others, now relieved that they are spared, congratulate Melville, and soon, he is dressed up in the habit of the Pope. Now, the time has come to announce ‘Habemus Papam’ from the balcony to the faithful and the media who have assembled in the St Peter’s Square. Slowing realising what was happening, and realising the gravity of the situation, Melville suffers a panic attack, and the ceremony is on hold.
Now, the problem is unless the name of the Pope is announced, the ceremony is not over, and the cardinals cannot be free of their confinement. And, Melville is a wreck. He needs help. A psychiatrist is summoned. But, he’s not of much help, as he cannot ask any intimate questions to the Holy See, especially questions of sexual nature, and with the other cardinals surrounding them, asking any question is a difficult task. He suggests that Melville should visit his wife.
Melville is taken to the lady psychiatrist under heavy security, and in civil dress, and from there, Melville escapes. Here’s begins the film, as the narrative alternates between the Vatican with the confined cardinals, who decide to organise a volleyball match to pass time, and Melville, stumbling across the city.
What is Melville’s problem? Doesn’t he want to be a Pope. He cannot refuse to be Pope. God has chosen him. But, he doesn’t believe that he is worthy to be a Pope, when he couldn’t even be a stage actor he always wanted to be (his sister did), and in the final scene we meet Melville in an auditorium attending the performance of a Chekhov play.
The film was screened in 2011 Cannes film festival, and though it failed to garner the buzz Moretti’s earlier film, the devastating ‘The Son’s Room’ (2001) did, it was warmly received by the critics and audience.
About the film, Moretti, who served as jury head in this year’s Cannes film festival, said: “I wanted to depict a fragile man, Cardinal Melville, who feels inadequate in the face of power and the role he's called to fill ... I think this feeling of inadequacy happens to all cardinals elected Pope, or at least that's what they say."
More about We Have A Pope Here.
More about Nanni Moretti here.