What if I told you a new movie, set at the Vatican during a papal conclave, has much in common with HBO’s mob drama “The Sopranos” and also with the Audrey Hepburn-Gregory Peck romance “Roman Holiday” (1953)? Would you be intrigued? Suspicious? Nostalgic?
Habemus Papam (“We Have a Pope”), by the Italian satirist Nanni Moretti, evokes a complicated set of reactions. You’ll be relieved to learn the “Sopranos” connection has nothing to do with Mafia-like mayhem or larceny; and no major character, including multiple “princes of the church,” forms an untoward romantic alliance. Still, don’t expect a flattering portrait of the hierarchy or inspirational fare like “The Shoes of the Fisherman” (1963).
Taking place in the present day, “Habemus Papam” centers on an obscure cardinal who is elected pope. Like the Jersey boss Tony Soprano, the stunned prelate suffers a major panic attack and sees a psychiatrist. Catholics will be drawn to the well-made picture by its subject matter yet are likely to be saddened by what ultimately transpires.
Director Moretti, who co-wrote the script and plays the pope’s shrink, presents a moving, unsettling and often humorous piece. He depicts the church hierarchy, specifically the College of Cardinals, in a satirical manner that borders on farce. But he infuses the portrait with enough believability and emotional authenticity to counter its more surreal and antithetical notes.
The film never comes off as cynical or blindly critical. Moretti, whose previous film “The Caiman” lampooned Italy’s Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, is not a believer. But he respects Catholicism enough to treat the psychology of faith with subtlety and sophistication. If you’ll pardon an oxymoron, the tone can be described as cheekily reverent.
The movie opens with file footage of an unnamed pontiff’s funeral Mass, after which chanting cardinals are shown entering the Sistine Chapel to elect a successor. We are privy to the interior thoughts of the leading candidates, each of whom dreads becoming the Holy Father. Their relief is palpable when, following several votes, the dark horse Cardinal Melville (portrayed by the august French actor Michel Piccoli) is chosen. But just as he is about to appear on the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square, Melville balks and refuses to proceed. After a medical examination, Rome’s preeminent psychoanalyst is brought in to offer an opinion.
The parallels with “Roman Holiday” arise after Melville is secretly taken from Vatican City to visit another psychiatrist (the first therapist’s ex-wife) and bolts. He wanders Rome incognito, like Hepburn’s royal princess in the William Wyler classic. Melville rubs shoulders with ordinary Romans and meets an acting troupe rehearsing Chekov’s “The Seagull.” Meanwhile, the cardinals remain sequestered, and the world waits to learn the identity of the new pope. Afraid to admit the pope has gone AWOL, the Vatican spokesman enlists a member of the Swiss Guard to make it appear as though Melville is holed up in the papal apartments.
How will this calamitous charade, the ultimate vocational crisis for a prelate, be resolved? Convinced he is incapable of serving, Melville wanders in a state of pitiable anguish and confusion, probably experiencing the onset of senile dementia. We cannot help but wonder whether his reluctance is fueled by humility or selfish weakness.
Moretti and his two co-writers are coy about addressing Melville’s faith in God and sidestep the most significant possible cause for his breakdown. The script does not examine anyone’s motivations or psychic make-up in detail, partly because it also makes light of the psychiatric profession and the rather passé Freudian approach taken by the analysts who (briefly) treat Melville. The movie comes closest to explaining Melville’s behavior in the scene in which he confides that before becoming a priest he desperately wanted to be an actor. It is telling that an unhinged thespian from the Chekov troupe functions as a doppelganger of sorts.
We are left to infer that Melville was chosen not because his fellow cardinals thought him able or willing, but because they were eager to pass the buck. The male psychiatrist, whom Moretti limns with hilarious insouciance, appears quite batty himself. Confined to the Vatican for three days while Melville is on the loose, he becomes chummy with the cardinals. He even organizes a volleyball tournament, dividing the conclave into teams based on geographic region. Gently absurd, these segments provide the occasion for a few inside-the-Curia jokes. Some viewers may not appreciate seeing red hats doffing their dignity. But the sequence underscores the idea that everyone in the movie’s universe is a little loopy, which is to say, flawed and therefore human.
Moretti’s skill at identifying every individual’s frailty and the absurdity in every scenario makes the film’s operatically somber and sudden ending all the more jarring. Watching the doleful conclusion, Catholics will likely grow defensive, their fealty toward the church and respect for the papacy sharpening. Our expectation as moviegoers that things will end well adds to the sting. My initial response was shock and indignation, mingled with the knee-jerk criticism that the plot of “Habemus Papam” is woefully underdeveloped.
What is Moretti trying to say? The most obvious interpretation is that Melville’s breakdown mirrors the church’s recent mistakes and misdeeds; the election of such an unstable bishop reflects a broken institution and a colossal failure of leadership. When Melville is told he was the victim of “parental deficit,” we are reminded of the hierarchy’s inability to protect victims of clergy sexual abuse.
While it is possible to interpret “Habemus Papam” as a condemnation of the church or a secular broadside against religion, it is more instructively taken as a parable about moral psychology. Melville’s doubts about his own suitability to succeed St. Peter are extreme. Surely belief ought not to be, and arguably cannot be, feigned in this context. Popes are not immune from doubt, but the test, as with any believer, is whether those misgivings are accompanied by sincerity. In other words, it is a matter of conscience between Melville and God. It is impossible for another human to parse his soul and judge his actions. Put indelicately, if Melville cannot shake the feeling that he is a fraud, it is likely he is a fraud—provided he ignores that self-knowledge. Seen in this light, we can better process Melville’s reluctance to commit.
Melville’s faith crisis is no different in kind from that of any other priest. Analogously, the frustration Hepburn’s princess in “Roman Holiday” feels about her duty-filled life is comparable to that of, say, a young woman in the 1950s who finds her secretarial job stultifying. When it comes to the princess and the secretary, we would be quicker to counsel staying the course until something better comes along, or, alternatively, suggesting an abrupt change in circumstances. Regarding the parish priest and the Bishop of Rome, it is possible that God’s grace, along with more prayer and deeper discernment, might enable either man to grow into his respective role. But unless there is honesty and a solid faith foundation, going through the motions would be morally suspect and potentially disastrous. Evidently Melville understands this.
Still, he leaves the church in an uncertain position as the film ends. The discomfort, if not the sorrow, this evokes in the audience recalls the black-out finale of “The Sopranos,” when the fate befalling Tony and his immediate family is never revealed. It is natural to prefer the certainty of a tidy ending in which a fictional protagonist, good or evil, receives his just desserts. Such resolutions, particularly of the feel-good variety, are often associated with traditional Hollywood entertainments. In actual fact, rarely are the endings of classic films as cut-and-dried or pat as we assume. As in life, most desires remain unfulfilled.
At the end of “Roman Holiday,” Hepburn’s princess returns to her minders and resumes her official duties. Although she is in love with Peck’s American journalist, they do not run away together; nor is a courtship with a commoner in the offing. Both have grown more fully human during their whirlwind romance, yet realism and practicality win out. Their pain will pass. The trauma endured by Melville and the church in “Habemus Papam” will take longer to heal, but the alternative could be worse. Judging by what Moretti shows us, we see that only in a fantasy realm tenuously linked to reality could Cardinal Melville’s papacy be a success. Yet according to Catholic belief, no matter how bad things get, hope and the possibility of renewal will never be extinguished as long as we strive to love God with pure hearts.