The Waiting Game
By Pasquale Cicchetti
We Have a Pope
Dir. Nanni Moretti, Italy, IFC Films
Rome, spring 2005. In the aftermath of Pope John Paul II’s death, the conclave is called to elect the new head of the Catholic Church. An interminable procession of red-robed cardinals enters the Sistine Chapel. We follow them as they descend the stairs, slow but steady, while a voice leads the litany of the Saints. All of a sudden, the chanting stops. The procession is halted. Someone shouts for everyone to wait a moment. For what? We are not told. A few shots later, the cardinals have finally made their way into the Chapel. The conclave has not even started yet, when suddenly the lights go off.
We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) has nothing to do with the Pope, much as director Nanni Moretti’s 2006 film Il Caimano, widely regarded as a j’accuse against Italy's controversial Prime Minister, was not really about Berlusconi. These films are less political, less provocative, less glittery than they seem to be. And yet, what they are truly talking about is infinitely more important than the religious and political figures they appear to challenge. It’s fascinating and amusing how easily Moretti manages to dazzle viewers in promoting his most recent films in Italy. The director—he himself somewhat of a spokesman for the Italian left-leaning public—seems to have picked themes that purposefully resonate with his public persona. To be sure, he gets the attention of the media, which then, reductively, focuses only on the (supposedly) provocative contents of his films. Behind the façade, behind the controversies, and the garish talk-show debates, these films should be seen for what they really are: gestures of trust. What do they trust? And why do they need to disguise themselves? As Moretti once said in another film of his, Caro Diario: “Even in a more decent society than this one, I will always be comfortable only with a minority of people. But not in the sense of those films in which there is a man and a woman who hate each other, who brawl with each other on a deserted island because the director does not believe in people. I believe in people, but not in the majority of people.”
We Have a Pope tells us the story of a man who is picked up to be a leader to other men. Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is a dark horse. Before the conclave, he is not mentioned among the favorites (the “pope-ables,” as we say in Italian). He is a quiet, meek man who would rather be anywhere else. Yet he is chosen, and he is chosen by his peers, who seem to be equally scared by the possibility of being elected. During the first vote, we hear their thoughts as they all pray to God not to be elected, including the favored Gregori. Moretti has been criticized for indulging in a light-hearted, almost childish depiction of these men, as if they were not ambitious, not used to wielding power. This might be true, but it’s not necessarily a flaw of the film, which isn’t meant to be a realistic account of what happens during a papal election, nor is it an informed critique of the Church’s politics. More than anything else, We Have a Pope is a reflection on what we expect from our leaders, and why. Eventually, the film is an invitation to take responsibility for ourselves, as part of an emancipated society, because no one else could do that for us. Point in case: Melville’s election comes out of nothing. After a couple of failed votes, all the ballots converge on this previously unmentioned character. No explanation is given. Those in the public who were expecting tactics and secret intrigues will be disappointed: the only secret to be revealed, we are told, is that no one really wanted to be chosen.
At the same time, Moretti restrains himself from any kind of naive mysticism. God is talked about a great deal in the film, but His name sounds more like a placeholder for a broader question. What do we expect from Him? Given that no politics are shown during the key scene of the election, we are to assume that the decision, after all, must really be in God’s hands. Yet, Moretti’s cinematographer, Alessandro Pesci, was explicitly asked to provide a plain-looking realism. If God’s wisdom is at work, nothing cinematic is there to make us aware of it. The cardinals scrape their heads as they wait for inspiration, they tap their pens on the table, they wait. In the end, the choice of Melville remains a mystery, accounted for by neither politics nor faith.
When faced with the necessity of addressing the cheering crowd in St Peter’s Square, the newly elected Pope has a nervous breakdown. Moretti himself plays a renowned psychoanalyst called in to help, but his intervention proves ineffective. Melville is then taken out of the Vatican to see another analyst (Margherita Buy). Taking advantage of a moment of distraction, however, the old man manages to leave behind his escort and disappear in the streets of Rome, commencing the film’s discrete second half.
Outside the Vatican City, the Pope wanders through the spaces of everyday urban life, blending in with the crowd he was supposed to address from above. The anonymous mass gives way to a kaleidoscope of individual listeners, some indifferent and rude, some kind and sympathetic. Led by a youthful interest in the theater, he befriends the members of an acting troupe. Without revealing who he really is, Melville exposes his frailty, his human weakness. In the meantime, the cardinals and Moretti’s psychoanalyst, trapped inside the secluded Vatican palace, have nothing to do but wait, so they decide to organize an international volleyball tournament. Thus, the two halves of the film correspond to one another: both inside and outside the walls, the collective need for guidance—seen in the formal rituals of the Church, the pervasive presence of the media, the massive crowd gathered for the event—is subtly short-circuited.
A different sociality emerges. Behind the guarded walls of the Vatican, the cardinals wait for the Pope—whom they believe to be in his apartments—to get over his doubts. As they wait, however, they discover a new way to be together: through play. And while they play, they don't seem to need anything, or anyone: divided as they are according to their continent of origin, they represent a joyful, serene image of human coexistence and equality. As the tournament unfolds, we see Cardinal Gregori and Moretti (also the referee) debate the meaning of life; but when team Oceania—represented by the outnumbered Australian cardinals—finally scores a point, the issue becomes meaningless. Also representative of the search for meaning on earth rather than from above is an earlier sequence, when we are transported from the inside of the palace to the outside streets, where the Pope is walking among the people, and everyone—including the Pope, the cardinals, we the spectators—is listening to the same song, Mercedes Sosa’s “Todo Cambia.” This is the core of We Have a Pope: this sudden emergence of shared emotions and experiences.
If the question is that of meaning, the film seems to suggest that the answer cannot come from above. In the same way, the producer, played by Silvio Orlando, in Il Caimano had to find his own personal connection to the political film he was making, in order to see its broader importance. Melville has no answer to give, because the question cannot be the burden of one man—not even a religious leader. Melville tells the psychoanalyst that, as he walks towards the balcony to address the crowd, all the dear faces of his life seem to fade. To become Pope is to become a symbol (an “actor”), a representative of our collective need for meaning, and ironically to lose one’s humanity.
Meaning can only be found for Melville as he walks the streets of Rome. He is not simply a flaneur: he is engaged, he participates, he sympathizes. He has no solutions. He shares the same hopes, the same fears. The character's attraction to the theater, in this context, comes to represent what cinema has always been for Moretti: the place for our shared humanity. On the opening night of the company’s production of Chekhov’s The Seagull, the cardinals break into the theater, where they spot Melville, watching the play from one of the boxes. Members of the audience realize who he is, and they begin to applaud. Singled out, he is forced back onto a different kind of stage, one he can’t share with anyone else. The Pope’s final refusal in front of the masses, the media, the world, therefore, is an act of understanding: Our collective need for meaning is too much of a burden for one man. The answers to the big questions can only emerge in shared experience. Moretti does not believe in masses. But he does believe in people.