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Nanni Moretti at the 55th BFI London Film Festival

Nanni Moretti at the 55th BFI London Film Festival

The lady from the BBC World Service was very persistent. Nanni Moretti had just spent more than an hour talking to us about his new film, We Have a Pope/Habemus Papam, and he was late for a Gala Screening. Now she wanted him to autograph her DVD of Dear Diary and a T-shirt for her daughter. I left before the weary-looking writer/director could be asked to inscribe his name on any of her body parts.

I knew that Moretti conducts his English-language interviews through a translator and that he likes to be very thorough. Most of his 20 films have a comic tone, but the man who has often been compared to Woody Allen takes his profession and his politics very seriously.

His latest film We Have a Pope is pure fiction, though some hard-liners seem to regard any attempt to make a film about the papacy as verging on heresy. Moretti said he did have some concerns about including stock footage from the funeral of John Paul II near the beginning of the movie. He didn’t want people to think that Melville (the character played by Michel Piccoli) was supposed to be based on Cardinal Ratzinger. In the end he decided that the pictures of the coffin were so iconic that they should stay in.

Though I’m one of those who expected this film to reflect the controversies that have tarnished the Church’s image, I can see now why Moretti chose a different route. He pointed out that as soon as the film was announced, critics had made up their minds — based on their entirely imagined idea of its offensive content. But while his portrait of jolly, volleyball-loving cardinals may not be realistic, he maintained it was the less easy path to show a pope who chooses renunciation. He admitted that the image of the empty balcony, which was one of his starting points for the movie, was one that believers would find disconcerting. So a film that depicts a crisis of faith at the head of the Church is, in the end, more problematic than one about pedophile priests.

Directors and directing

Moretti was born in 1953, so I wanted to know which films and directors had made an impression on him as a young film-goer. I didn’t get a straight answer to that, though he did eventually mention his compatriots Bernardo Bertolucci, Ermanno Olmi and Pier Paolo Pasolini. When it comes to developing your own ideas about cinema he emphasised the importance of watching bad movies as well as good ones. That’s what helps give a director a frame of reference when he’s talking to his collaborators about what he doesn’t want to see in his work. Without naming names, Moretti criticised directors who think they’ve fulfilled their remit simply by tackling an important subject. He’s more interested in finding stories that engage an audience on a number of levels. Despite my reservations about We Have a Pope, the central issue of a man doubting his capacity for leadership could also work in the context of politics, business or the monarchy.

Shrinking audiences

In 2001 Moretti was interviewed at the London Film Festival before a screening of his Palme d’Or winner, The Son’s Room. He mentioned Nuovo Sacher, the independent cinema he owns in his home city of Rome, which celebrates its 20th anniversary on 1 November. Ten years ago François Ozon’s Water Drops on Burning Rocks was getting a good reception. Yesterday he was able to tell us exactly how many people (just 27) were in the audience that afternoon for Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. His prediction was that the Iranian drama would only make one tenth of the box office it enjoyed in France. He put that down to the fact that Italy doesn’t have hardcore cinephiles in the way that France does.

Moretti also lamented the fact that in the 70s and 80s only good movies by good authors got distribution in Italy. Now, he claims, that quality control has gone. Jokingly, he pointed out that no one ever puts the blame for falling attendances on the audiences, who are so easily diverted by everything from bad weather to a clash with the latest Spielberg blockbuster. (Was this his tacit admission that We Have a Pope is going to have a hard time competing with The Adventures of Tintin?)

Attention to detail

It wouldn’t have been my choice to raise the issue of politics and — specifically Berlusconi — with Moretti. He did say that he was not optimistic about the future of Italy under Berlusconi’s leadership. He addressed every issue with equal gravity, but the two questions that left him speechless concerned his views on the Italian Left and his own performances on screen (he has acted in many of his films).

Earlier Moretti talked about the importance of attention to detail and ensuring that you do the boring parts of your job well. (He checked the correct pronounciation of actor Jerzy Stuhr’s name with a Polish journalist.) His own dedication to media commitments tells me that this is one director who practises what he preaches.

– Susannah Straughan

Visit the official website for the 55th BFI Film Festival