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We Have a Pope
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by Jay Seaver

"Blessed with potential, but focuses on the wrong things."
3 stars

While many films lack even one original, interesting idea, "Habemus Papam" has at least two at its heart. Quite possibly three, and maybe even four if you're feeling very generous. Nanni Moretti gets fairly far by sharing his curiosity about the papal election process and what might happen if it hit a snag with the audience; he just seems to wind up adrift when it comes time to make a real story out of it.

The process of the Catholic Church selecting a new pope is shrouded in mystery; the college of cardinals not only sequesters themselves, but burns all records of their voting and all notes kept during the deliberations. The faithful (and press) massed outside the Vatican have an idea of who is likely to be chosen, and very few expect it to be Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who has more humility than ambition. It is him, though, and just as the smoke changes color and "habemus papam" is announced from the traditional balcony, the new leader has a panic attack and refuses to address his flock. The church finds itself at an impasse, with the layman administrator (Jerzy Stuhr) bringing in a noted professor of psychiatry (Nanni Moretti) before trying more desperate measures.

To give it its due, it starts out with the right actor in the right part - Michel Piccoli is the perfect man to play Father Melville. At first, he certainly looks like just another old man in a room full of old men, but a closer look shows an almost youthfully open heart and lack of guile. Melville must be utterly deserving but also terrified at the responsibility he's been entrusted with. Piccoli is able to sell the cardinal as somebody that anyone can approach and trust but also seemingly out of place in every situation he's placed into. That paradox is at the heart of the character and the movie - the things that make Melville the person one would want as Pope also make him terrified of the job - and Piccoli embodies the role wonderfully.

I'm not sure whether Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope in English) is built with non-Catholics in mind or if that's a part of the audience isn't an important consideration for the filmmaker. It is, after all, an Italian movie about the Catholic Church, and satiric commentary on that organization's inner workings is most likely addressed to its members. Still, the Church's influence is vast enough to matter to non-believers, and even if it were fictional, considering the dynamics of how a large, singular organization with a unique structure works could be just as fascinating. The issues Moretti brings up - how does the secretive process of choosing a new pope work, and what happens when someone whose job is to be a decisive leader ("infallible", even) is paralyzed by fear - are great ones to dig into.

Early on, Moretti does an excellent job of nailing the satirical possibilities of the situation while also demonstrating respect for Melville's faith and how that puts him in crisis. There are some extremely funny scenes - for instance, the professor trying to psychoanalyze Melville with dozens of cardinals watching and forbidding discussion of certain topics - among those that have the ring of truth even with their strangeness. The finale picks up on the conflict between personal doubts and institutional certainty in a way that demands further exploration.

In between, though, he loses his way badly. The situation within the Vatican goes from absurd but incisive to just silly and tiresome, while Melville's personal odyssey seems clear enough in intention without really having the interesting detail and big moments to give it weight. As much as detail is usually a good thing in a movie, the latter half relies on specific references and inside knowledge too much. Moretti winds up trying to wrangle an excessively large cast of characters and only taking tentative steps in the direction of what having the papacy in limbo means to the faithful. He's created a situation that offers many angles for both examination and comedy, but restricted himself to some of the most limited.

It's a shame that the screenplay by Moretti and two others winds up going so far afield, because it's the only real weakness in the film: The production is handsome, evoking the regal beauty of the Vatican splendidly despite it seeming very unlikely that Vatican City would give permission to film there. The (large) supporting cast is quite good all around, and when Moretti hits a good bit, he generally nails it.

Note: The version being distributed by "Sundance Selects" in the USA may be somewhat compromised; the host of this screening mentioned that at least one scene - the other cardinals conspiring to stick Melville with the job - was in the version that screened at Cannes but is missing here. Even with what would seem to be a crucial point restored, though, the movie would still have its problems. The second half of this just can't find its way back to what makes the first so intriguing, and a potentially intriguing finale winds up a tease for what could have been a funny and fascinating movie.

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originally posted: 03/11/12 16:42:05
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Festival de Cannes For more in the 2011 Festival de Cannes series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Toronto International Film Festival For more in the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival series, click here.
OFFICIAL SELECTION: 47th Chicago International Film Festival For more in the 47th Chicago International Film Festival series, click here.

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  DVD: 11-Sep-2012


  DVD: 11-Sep-2012

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