Moretti: Softer, Kinder to Church

Italian director Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a Pope,” which premiered at the Cannes Film Fest (in the competition series) is a satire of the church that does not bite.

The best films of Moretti, such as “Palombella Rossa” and “Dear Diary,” observe a healthy balance of observational humor and mordant social analysis. In these films, Moretti drew off his own trademark persona of the modernist intellectual, trying to make sense of a strange, often unaccountable existence.  This is the reason why early on he was often compared to Woody Allen.

Sometimes the above dialectic does not always work, like the director’s previous film, “The Caiman,” a blistering attack on the moral corruption of Silvio Berlusconi’s regime. The movie was angry, to be sure, but Moretti never quite capably integrated his personal and political animus into a satisfying narrative framework.

The Italian director’s new film, “We Have a Pope” (Habemus Papam), makes for an interesting echo, or bookend of that film. It is also a study of power and personality, but the tone is much different; it’s wistful and rueful.  A meditation on mortality and faith, the story concerns an essentially good, though unremarkable man, suddenly thrust into a role that he is monumentally incapable of playing.

This approach results in a curious work, which is engrossing and fun but also highly uneven. The new film is certainly engaging and clever, though it is also somewhat timid, both intellectually and emotionally. Moretti has called himself a skeptic, or a nonbeliever, and his adversarial relationship with Italy’s political elite has always been a matter of record.  Moretti wrote the script, but he appears reluctant to critique the manner and institutional record of the church with open ended ferocity.

The film’s mood is dry and relaxed. A great deal of it unfolds entirely within the sanctified spaces of the Holy See, the episcopal jurisdiction of the Catholic Church in Rome. At the start, Moretti cleverly interpolates archival footage of the state funeral of John Paul II to authenticate through atmosphere and background his fictional story of the election of a new pope.

In dramatizing the bishops’ selection of a new pope, Moretti utilizes his casually subversive, satiric talent for upbraiding process and the rules of law. He illustrates the factionalism and quest for power sharing and subtle agreements. (He also uses a local television reporter as a chronicler or expert observer who ferrets out the details and resulting power plays.) It ends on a lovely grace note that locates a wholly different kind of horror of the collective internal voices of the bishops crying out not to be picked.

Appropriately, the elected one, Melville (Michel Piccoli) is monumentally blessed and cursed. He makes palpable by his frightened brow and barely suppressed devastated look how unwilling he is to assume the papacy. With a crowd massed in St. Peter’s Square for the formal introduction, he panics and flees to his private quarters.

Suddenly confronted with an international crisis, the church leadership, represented in the agile, perplexed form of the great Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr, enlists a prominent psychiatrist (Moretti) in an attempt to assuage the pontiff’s fears and convince him to lay claim to his privileged destiny. In turn, the psychiatrist is flummoxed by the rigid rules governing what is allowable in his private inquiry into the man’s past, especially questions about sexuality and his childhood.

With many of the other cardinals left in the lurch, believing the new pope is secure in his quarters, the pope stages a daring escape from his handlers. Freed from the massive obligations imposed on him, he undertakes his own investigation of his past. In discussions with a female therapist (Margherita Buy), the estranged wife of Moretti’s character, the pontiff initiates a wholly different personal search, one about origins and beliefs that finds him living in anonymity in a local hotel and being drawn into the flamboyant activities of a theater troupe. These are the freshest and most sustained passages in the film.

Piccoli is one of the great treasures of the cinema, a supreme artist who has performed with the greatest filmmakers, from Renoir and Hitchcock to Godard and Bunuel. His presence evokes another film, Manoel de Oliveira’s monumental Cannes work of a decade ago, “I’m Going Home.”

The metaphor of the movie is the performance, of Shakespeare’s dictum of all the world’s a stage and we all have explicit roles, and the tension develops from how we accept or repudiate those assignments.

In that regard, “We Have a Pope” is most successful in the casting. Piccoli has a great and beautiful face, lined, a bit craggy, but indicative of a past and life lived. He uses his bulk and size gracefully, a private instrument that registers a range of feelings and response, of a questioning, uncertain though quiet dignity. Moretti’s film would have achieved a more transcendent, intensity and verve if he sustained and developed that inquiry, both moral and personal, of the doubting or reluctant pope.

But he instead clutters the narrative frame with a lot of funny though ultimately divertissements, like the functionary assigned to impersonate the pope to carry out the charade of him still being on the grounds, or the activities Moretti’s psychiatrist deploys in order to keep the remainder of the cardinals in line.

Moretti’s shotgun approach, firing at a lot of different targets with a massive gun, seeing the different pellets spray off in different directions, has some appeal and interest; he is best in miniature, where his talent for the sketch format gives his ideas a suppleness and agility, like a lovely comic sequence about how the cardinals comically turn on a superior because of his drug dependency.

“We Have a Pope” is the rare Moretti film not about bigger pursuits or larger ideas. It is content to stake out a middle ground. In that way, the movie succeeds. It’s a safe passage.

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