We Have A Pope (Habemus Papam)

Italy (2011) Dir. Nanni Moretti

As is the tradition when the incumbent pontiff passes on, the conclave meets in Rome to elect a successor. The first vote results in the awaiting public seeing the black smoke to signify an inconclusive result but when the second round of voting takes place the unanimous decision sees Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) the chosen one.

Just as the announcement is about to be made, Melville suffers a panic attack and runs away from his post, leaving the official word as “We have a Pope” but not revealing his name. To cover for Melville’s absence the Holy See tell the people and the conclave that the Pope is praying for strength before taking over his post.

Films about religion will always prove contentious since it is one of the most divisive and polarising aspects of modern life. Therefore it takes some guts to make a film about the Pope in the country of his holy residence but that is exactly what Nanni Moretti has done. But, be assured if you are of a pious persuasion that Moretti hasn’t made this film to pass on a personal opinion on religion at all.

We Have A Pope delivers exactly what it says in the title while relating a story about a man suffering a crisis of confidence when taking on the mantle of a burdensome and hugely responsible job. Unfortunately the Vatican didn’t see it that way, predictably took offence and called for a boycott. And people accuse them of being out of touch?

If that sounds a bit glib fear not as this isn’t about being disrespectful as Moretti’s film is a light comedy with a touch of satire about it. While the late Pope’s funeral procession opens the film the humour is slipped in early as we meet the various cardinals in the Vatican pondering their votes all praying – praying not to be the one chosen! Melville gets the nod but seems overwhelmed and pressured into agreeing to his promotion. His screams behind the balcony curtain drown out the announcement of his appointment cutting it short when he runs away.

Professor Brezzi (Nanni Moretti), a psychoanalyst, is brought in to help solve Melville’s problems but gets nowhere, so he suggests his ex-wife (Margherita Buy) might be a better option. During a trip to her offices, Melville learns what may be the root of his problems and decides to reconcile these on his terms, managing to escape from the watchful eye of the Vatican’s official spokesman Marcin Rajski (Jerzy Stuhr) and his men. Fearing the reaction of the conclave, Rajski puts a Swiss guard (Gianluca Gobbi) into Melville’s room and has him pretend to be the Pontiff from behind the curtains to fool the cardinals and the public.

It is through the superb performance of veteran French actor Michel Piccoli (speaking fluent Italian here) that we are given a fictional insight into the men behind the frocks so to speak. I’m sure that due to the elevated status of the papal and those on the periphery that the impression is they are a rather detached group of people but Moretti goes out of his way to humanise these men (and women – some nuns are present too) even if it is for a gentle laugh.

Through Piccoli we are shown a man who feels the weight of his new position and needs time to acclimatise and prepare himself for this role. It’s not a crisis of faith but simply a sense of Melvile’s own worth being questioned here.

Oddly Brezzi’s ex-wife suggests that Melville is suffering from a “parental deficit” – i.e: being ignored by his parents – leaving the new pontiff to ponder this and try to find away to find a resolution to this. On his journey he encounters the ordinary people of the world whose behaviour seems to have an effect on his outlook of life.

Unfortunately Moretti doesn’t really explore or explain why this should be and how associating with a clearly bonkers actor (Dario Cantarelli) who roams the halls of a hotel early in the morning yelling lines from Chekov but he does.

Meanwhile Brezzi is forced to stay in the Vatican with the cardinals as Vatican law dictates that no contact can be made with the outside world until the announcement of the new Pontiff has been made. This provides us with some more humour as the cardinals have to amuse themselves somehow, as does the interred Brezzi, who teaches them how to play cards and in a wonderful sight, organises an international volleyball tournament. You read that right.

It is rather amusing to see the stuffy old cardinals in their smocks and full regalia competing ferociously against each other in this physical competition. It’s one of those incongruous anomalies that it can’t fail to raise a giggle or too (unless you belong to the Vatican of course).

While there is plenty to enjoy as Melville goes on his belated journey of self discovery and the Cardinals amuse themselves while they await his return, the film sadly builds up to a rather unsatisfying conclusion in that we don’t actually learn what Melville reconciled about himself and how it played into his actions in the final act.

He essentially goes for a walkabout in the “real world” feels better about himself then does what he does in the denouement. The actual cathartic process is overlooked and underplayed which is a let down to what is otherwise a charming little light comedy.

Moretti may be responsible for some savage political based films in the past making We Have A Pope an accessible work but maybe that acclaimed punch is what is missing from this enjoyable enough little outing.


4 thoughts on “We Have A Pope (Habemus Papam)

  1. Thanks. 🙂 It may seem a bit dull in places especially if you’re not religious but the sight of cardinals behaving like “regular” people is quite amusing. 😀


  2. How Cardinal Melville responded to his election reminds me of St. Athanasius, who went into hiding after the moribund Patriarch of Alexandria and the people of Alexandria declared that they wanted Athanasius to be patriarch. Apparently, the dying patriarch’s last words were that Athanasius wouldn’t escape. Lucky for us, he didn’t!

    Reading your description of the movie makes me surprised that the Vatican called for a boycott of this film. Sounds like they were oversensitive or maybe oversuspicious of Moretti. At any rate, the best movie set in and around the Vatican has to be The Scarlet and the Black.


    1. I will have to bow to your knowledge on this particular subject but all I know is that this is a charming little film that took an everyday situation and put it into a rather bold context,which appeals to my satirical side! 😉


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