February 11, 2013

No To the Papacy

a review of Habemus Papam released in the US as We Have A Pope, a film by Nanni Moretti, 2011.
I watched and enjoyed this film some weeks ago on Netflix. Actually I enjoyed it so much that I watched it twice. Little did I know at the time how timely it might become. For this unassuming little film is about a man who resigns from the papacy — or I should say, puts the College of Cardinals into confusion and captivity by being elected, accepting the office, but then, in a crisis of conscience, refusing to be presented on the balcony — leaving them in the quandary of having a duly elected pope who refuses to be announced as such.

The film is billed as both a comedy and drama, and indeed that is what it is; there are any number of satirical pokes at institutions as various as the church and the press — including a delightfully gaffe-prone TV journalist who keeps making announcements that he must immediately correct. But the take-away for me is the poignancy of many of the characterizations; particularly that of the reluctant pope himself, beautifully crafted by Michel Piccoli. He captures both the gentleness and irascibility to which pastors who are also men of power are given, in a carefully graded blend of nostalgia for paths not taken, anger both at his own incompetence and at the misplaced help of others, and a sense of loss and dismay and incapacity. One might observe the director intended a commentary on the church itself; if that is the case, Piccoli serves well to portray it.

The cast is uniformly excellent in both large and small roles. I would take particular note of the director himself, who plays an atheist psychoanalyst made a prisoner of the Vatican, and who has delightful and meaningful encounters with the large (and convincing) cast of Cardinals who are similarly locked up until their dilemma can be resolved. Jerzy Stuhr as Il Portavoce, the Vatican press secretary, is a wonderful example of someone tasked with something inconceivable, yet managing to use all his wiles to cover the obvious embarrassment. This includes finding a Swiss Guard to hang out in the papal apartments and give the impression that all is well (the almost nonspeaking role of a man thrust into an inconceivable position is played with great charm by Gianluca Gobbi.)

I’ll stop there lest I give away too many spoilers, as there are many twists and turns in the plot — suffice it to say the film is well worth seeing, amusing and moving at turns, funny and poignant. But at this point, timely. Whether it is a parable of a church that has lost its way I will leave to you to decide, but it does raise some questions — now more than ever.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


dr.primrose said...

I was probably one of three people who actually saw it in a theatre. Very funny and very touching movie.

Daniel Weir said...

Thank you for recommending this. I made watching it part of my observance of Ash Wednesday. Another film about a Pope, a rather more romantic one, is Tom Conti"s "Saving Grace." Both films, in different ways, explore the problem of the modern papacy, a problem which will not, as Gary Wills points out in his New York Times essay, be solved with the election of the Benedict's successor. One might hope the Benedict's decision would set something of a precedent for future Bishops of Rome.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Dr. P. I'm glad for the algorithms employed by Netflix, which recommended this to me. Otherwise I think I'd never have heard of it.

You're welcome, Daniel. I think Wills is stating what has become obvious to many outside the hallowed walls and bubble. The real question is, is it too late for moderate reform, or is revolution needed?