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55th BFI London Film Festival Opening Gala: ‘We Have a Pope’ toothlessly takes on the Vatican

We Have a Pope / Habemus Papam

Directed by Nanni Moretti

Written by Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli

Italy / France, 2011

We Have a Pope gets off to a colourful start, with the masses in Saint Peter’s Square feasting their eyes on a sea of red capes, white lace and ecclesiastical bling. On paper, Nanni Moretti’s film promises swinging satire and perhaps some searching questions about how the Roman Catholic Church chooses its leader. Unfortunately he’s bottled it – serving up a comedy so mild it should come with a Papal Seal of Approval.

Michel Piccoli stars as Cardinal Melville, chosen by his peers to be the new Pope after lengthy deliberations and much collective boredom. It turns out that no one really wanted the job (“Not me, Lord”), so Melville is just the poor schmuck who’s drawn the short straw. In a wonderfully anti-climactic moment he fails to appear on the balcony to greet the faithful, instead collapsing behind the scenes with a howl of anguish.

Moretti and his co-writers Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli give us a promising set-up with all the trimmings. Scenes of pageantry and media hype are effectively juxtaposed with the fragile and doubt-ridden mortals who comprise the College of Cardinals. One of them has a face so cadaverous it looks like the work of El Greco. In this unprecedented crisis, top psychoanalyst Brezzi (played by Moretti) is drafted in to counsel the anxiety-stricken Pope-elect. But he just ends up being sequestered along with all the Cardinals, while Melville sneaks off on an extended walkabout in the Eternal City.

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During his distinguished career the 85-year-old Piccoli has gazed upon many of the heavenly bodies of French cinema – including Bardot, Deneuve and Béart. It’s a bit hard to reconcile that virile screen presence with the white-haired and rather frail figure we see playfully waving to the Swiss Guards. While Melville’s problems may be put down to parental deficit disorder, Piccoli is hampered by a far more straightforward case of a meandering script.

If you were hoping for skeletons in the papal closet, forget it. Apart from a few angry outbursts, punctuated by chats with his stressed-out spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr), what we get is a weary old man who once harboured dreams of being an actor. A consultation with Brezzi’s wife (also a shrink) yields a couple of gags but doesn’t go anywhere. Our runaway Pontiff needed something more solid on which to anchor his anxieties than a local production of The Seagull.

Back at the Vatican, there’s a plump Swiss Guard gorging himself in the Pope’s suite, while Brezzi tries to keep the cardinals happy with a volleyball tournament and advice about their pharmaceutical intake. But it’s the middle section of this movie that appears to have been flattened by a massive dose of Mogadon. Moretti’s peculiarly Italian brand of neurosis can be fun – in moderation – but what we need is more of Stuhr’s enterprising spin-doctor and a genuine sense of tension.

We Have a Pope ticks all the right boxes in terms of lighting, set design and cinematography. The best scenes in the film show the lone figure of Melville crushed by the sheer opulence of his surroundings, the burden of history and the weight of expectation. The climactic scene in which the cardinals finally track down the escapee in a theatre is also well choreographed.

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If the Catholic Church had hired Moretti to make a commercial he could hardly have done a better PR job – all those lovely costumes, genial characters and not a whiff of scandal. But you do wonder how the film-maker who lambasted Berlusconi in The Caiman/Il Caimano could have gone so soft. Perhaps he had one eye on the hereafter.

Susannah Straughan

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival