‘We Have a Pope’, The Now Seminal Film on Pontifical Abdication

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Just hours ago, Pope Benedict XVI spent his final moments as Pontiff. His famous Twitter page, @Pontifex now simply reads “Sede Vacante,” or empty seat. Being the first Pope to resign in some 600 years, Benedict XVI leaves the over 1.2 billion Roman Catholics in the world leaderless until the conclusion of the upcoming Papal Conclave. Benedict’s resignation has thrust the media into speculation about his reasons for stepping down. It’s an interesting situation that has many asking; what if the Pope just decides he no longer want to be Pope?

This very question was raised, prophesized in some respects, in last years wonderfully funny We Have A Pope. Italian director Nanni Moretti poignantly captured a Pope’s crisis of faith, in what can now be pointed to as the seminal film about pontifical abdication. In the shadow of Benedict XVI’s final day I revisit We Have a Pope (which is currently streaming on Netflix) in its undeniably current context.

I was brought up in a Catholic family but never truly understood the ritualistic nature of Catholicism. To me the gaudy gold and red ornamentation and motions of prayer and confession seemed to have no place in my acceptance of a God. But that‘s not to say that the grandeur of the church didn’t fascinate me and fill me with an overflow of complex questions. The Papacy in particular was always something of an enigma to me; an office of power over faith that is both contrary to yet beloved by the majority of those bound to it. The burden of being chosen by God as an infallible leader has to come with some very heavy baggage, and We Have a Pope exists to weigh that very burden.

We Have a Pope is set in modern times against the antiquated backdrop of the Vatican City. Behind the walls of the Vatican, Moretti lifts the veil on Papal life as he imagines it, revealing a world of comedic humility and almost sincere naivety. The film picks up after the death of the Pope as the Papal Conclave convenes to choose his successor. A crowd of devoted onlookers and press hold vigil in St. Peter’s Square, gasping at every sign of smoke as the Cardinals cast their votes. The outside crowd is at a fever pitch, more the scene of a large music festival than religious election. Inside, the conclave of Cardinals, all older men in traditional robes mill about in hushed tones and bittersweet anticipation.

The juxtaposition of the outside frenzy with the Cardinals quiet is heightened by a level of child-like innocence that blankets the group. The Cardinals are shown as a group of smiling optimists, all a bit socially awkward in their own ways. Within this closed off world of the conclave, one only a chosen few ever witness, the Cardinals finally, after several rounds of voting, choose Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) as Pope. White Smoke hovers over St. Peter’s Square as the crowd erupts in anticipation of the coming announcement of “Habemus Papam,” “We have a Pope.”

As the Cardinal proto-deacon steps out onto the balcony to make the announcement, Cardinal Melville has a panic attack and runs off screaming down the hall. The Conclave cannot end until the Pope is announced, so now the Cardinals are stuck indoors to see Melville through his doubts, no matter how long it takes. Hours and days pass and the spokesman for the Papacy, under great public pressure, employs a psychoanalyst to come and guide the new Pope through his doubts. Moretti himself plays this psychoanalyst who ultimately fails at his assessment of the Pope after being restricted from asking anything of his past, mother or desires. But now that he has seen the new Pope, he too is stuck within the Conclave, unable to leave for fear of his leaking the election of Melville to the public.

At the center of everything is Piccoli’s portrayal of Melville. Piccoli is one of Europe’s finest actors, and here, as a man chosen by God to serve over a billion faithful believers he perfectly conveys the mental and moral struggle of taking on such gargantuan responsibility. We Have a Pope is intelligent for its bold ironies and timeless in its portrayal of counterproductive traditions. The child-like innocence of the Cardinals mirrors what many perceive as the churches’ behind-the-times mentality. Moretti, much like Benedict himself, shows us one man who is coming to terms with this realization. That man just happens to have just been named Pope.

– Tony Nunes

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