“Off, off, you lendings!” cries King Lear as he strips himself of the royal robes and reduces himself to the state of an “unaccommodated man,” living with the rest of unprivileged humanity. He’s deranged when he does this, but in many myths and fairy tales, kings, counts, and caliphs shed their identities with cool-headed deliberation: they want to become wiser rulers by getting to know the ruled. The disguised potentate keeps reappearing in drama and literature. Posing as a priest, the Duke of Vienna in Measure for Measure witnesses the harm his harsh laws have wrought; Tsar Peter the Great, in the hugely popular nineteenth-century operetta Zar und Zimmermann, helps young lovers while pretending to be a carpenter; and in the opening episode of the ’70s TV series Lou Grant, the hero, a newly hired editor, walks through his newsroom to take the pulse of the reporters before they realize who he is.
But this myth doesn’t suit most modern political stories. Democratic heads of state have pollsters to gauge public opinion, and totalitarian rulers answer public rumblings with gunfire. So it was a stroke of genius for Italian writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti to realize that there is still one supreme, nondemocratic sovereign living in palatial splendor, royally robed, surrounded by courtiers and obsequious ministers, and guarded by soldiers armed with halberds and swords—a ruler we could still imagine walking in disguise among common folk. The pope.
We Have a Pope is a satire but a surprisingly gentle one. Moretti mocks the protocols of papal election and Vatican secretiveness mostly by depicting the all-too-human frailty of churchmen caught in the conclave machinery. An early scene sets the tone. As the cardinals process into the election chamber, their vestments create an impressive splash of red and white against the marble surroundings. But somewhere at the head of the line, an unseen impediment holds up traffic. “Un momento!” a distant voice sings out, and for half a minute of screen time ecclesiastical pomp is put on embarrassing hold as the princes squirm, sweat, and stare into the middle distance. We laugh, but there are no close-ups of huffed faces designed to make us jeer. The cardinals wait patiently, and all this momentousness losing momentum evokes nothing but our common-creature empathy.
This minor mishap foreshadows an epic gridlock. On being elected pope, a Frenchman named Melville (Michel Piccoli) declares, “God sees abilities in me I don’t have.” Undergoing what appears to be a nervous breakdown (later he will describe his inchoate feelings as “psychological sinusitis”), Melville refuses to assume Peter’s throne. Vatican officials block all news of the crisis, announcing only that the new, unnamed pontiff has taken some time off for prayer and reflection before meeting his flock. An agnostic but sympathetic psychoanalyst (wittily played by Moretti himself) is called in to help the pope but to no effect. (Wouldn’t the Vatican have chosen a Christian psychiatrist?) A second analyst—who just happens to be the ex-wife of the first—is consulted. After his first appointment with her, Melville eludes his handlers and wanders anonymously into the bustle of Rome. Meanwhile, thousands of the faithful keep vigil in St. Peter’s Square and millions more puzzle before their TV sets.
The pope is on a sort of semi-senescent, semi-philosophical pilgrimage, an escape from responsibility but also a quest for meaning. He mutters to himself, cadges food, calls his staff from borrowed cell phones to reassure them, keeps his appointments with the female psychoanalyst, observes Roman street and café life, occasionally glimpses news about the consternation he’s caused, and finally attaches himself to a theater company about to premier Chekhov’s The Seagull.
The first hour of this 105-minute movie succeeds in blending humor and poignancy. Many moments linger in the mind: the deliberating cardinals tapping their pens, at first desultorily and then in unison as their one shared thought—“Please, dear God, not me!”—becomes audible on the soundtrack; Melville, before his escape, benevolently beaming at members of the Swiss Guard on drill in the papal gardens (they don’t know what to make of the pixyish cleric); a montage of the cardinals, coddled prisoners of the Vatican until Melville’s election is officially announced, occupying themselves before bedtime with jigsaw puzzles, exercise bikes, extra glasses of wine, etc.
The film’s keenest satire is in a scene where the psychoanalyst Moretti takes on the new pope in a session whose boundaries have been strictly set by the Vatican’s bureaucracy. (“Can I ask about his relationship with his mother?” “No.” “His dreams?” “Within limits.” “His sexual fantasies?” “Absolutely not!”) All the cardinals hover like Hitchcock’s birds, ready to swoop in should the interview get too Freudian.
Michel Piccoli is now over eighty-five years old and no longer projects the wolfishness that made the sociopaths, playboys, and gamblers he used to play so memorable. Age has filled out his face and bestowed on it a mildness and quizzicality that suits the part of Melville perfectly. In the performances of some elderly actors you may uncomfortably sense the director capitalizing on, even exploiting, infirmity. But, like James Cagney in Ragtime, Piccoli makes you aware of a residual strength behind the fragility, a keenness ever ready to burst through the woolgathering. This keeps the audience in some suspense while watching Melville struggle against his doubts and terrors.
So far, so great. Yet We Have a Pope loses its momentum in its last forty-five minutes. The inventiveness flags, the satire loses its edge, and even some of the poignancy evaporates. Of course, the storyline has to split into parallel tracks once the pope escapes from the Vatican. From then on, most of the satire is confined to scenes of the sequestered cardinals and Moretti’s psychiatrist exasperating one another back at the palace, while Melville’s Roman odyssey concentrates the story’s tenderness. This in itself would not have been a flaw had the satire remained sharp and the poignancy truly felt, but they don’t.
Moretti portrays the cardinals the same way Hollywood screwball comedies treated Shriners: as overgrown boys on a lark. None of them are memorable even as caricatures, and Moretti is finally reduced to conjuring up a volleyball competition for these wild and crazy guys in red, with the good doctor as referee. Lame.
For the pope’s wanderings to come to some sort of culmination, he would have needed substantial encounters with residents of Rome, ordinary people who could have convincingly evoked from him a new appreciation of human need. His stay with the theater troupe was probably meant to do this, but the actors are no more individualized than the cardinals, except for one who goes off his rocker and starts reciting the entire play—everyone’s lines, not just his own. We get the point. A pope must certainly play his crucial role within the church, but must his voice be the only one heard? We may or may not feel that this symbolism is worthy of the problem, but the real drama must emerge from the way the situation changes Melville’s heart and strengthens his resolve. His involvement with the troupe doesn’t do this.
The actual turning point comes when Melville attends a Mass celebrated by a young priest who in his sermon urges humility in trying to understand the will of God. This inspires the pope’s final decision, a declaration of great humility. Very neat, but given Melville’s insecurity, wasn’t his problem a matter of too much humility all along? We Have a Pope is a fine, funny movie, but, dramatically speaking, it runs in place.