We Have a Pope


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Michel Piccoli in one of his most memorable roles in Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope which he made at the age of 85
"A pleasingly thoughtful and warm-hearted exploration of religion, morality and personal responsibility." | Photo: Unifrance

Pope John XXII once said "He would drive his strength against a mountain and plunge his strength against the sea...but know that the mountain would stand while the man broke himself and the sea would surge while the man drowned in it." Cinema is full of stories about men overcoming mountains, so it's nice to see a film take on the more difficult subject of a man facing up to his limitations. In the context of this papal quote, the situation couldn't be more charged. Melville (Michel Piccoli) has just been elected Pope himself. It's a job he desperately doesn't want to do.

For a filmmaker there can be few settings more appealing than Vatican City. Spectacular buildings, sumptuous decor, elegant costumes and bizarre rituals provide a visual feast. They also provide a gilded cage for our bewildered hero. He feels an intolerable pressure in his head. He keeps blanking things out. He cannot bring himself to address the faithful. Is he mentally ill, or is he undergoing a religious experience? When he escapes into the streets of Rome one cannot help but recall tales of kings and saints who walked among the people to gain wisdom. But Melville - who loses even his name in the process of his reinvention by others - is seeking a narrative of his own.

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In his youth His Holiness wanted to be an actor. In one curious incident we see him rescue a man from mental breakdown by reciting Chekov. It is the only time that he actively seeks responsibility, stepping into somebody else's story, although he is surrounded by fragments of other narratives, opportunities to weave his way into different lives. What he seems to be pursuing is a means of knowing himself well enough, surely enough, to be honest. Somewhere there must be a means to stop playing a part; to speak without a script.

If this sounds like tough going for the audience, it's not. Whilst it avoids the comedy mania of Nuns On The Run, this tale of a runaway pope is full of wit and humour. Whilst His Holiness is finding himself, Vatican officials are engaged in a series of desperate charades to make it look as if everything is going to plan. Layers of well-intended subterfuge present a subtle challenge to the Church's official moral tone. Then there's the added complication of an atheist psychoanalyst (played by the director), separated from a wife he still loves; a wife who believes practically everybody's emotional conflicts originate from parental deficit. Unaware of his identity, she asks His Holiness about his mother; but it is the absence of a father, be it a pope or perhaps God himself, that causes the real problems here, as adults struggle (sometimes through play) to develop their own fully independent identities.

We Have A Pope is too slow in places and could work better with 10 or 20 minutes shaved off it, but it's a pleasingly thoughtful and warm-hearted exploration of religion, morality and personal responsibility. Those who follow Vatican politics may find it just a little too fluffy (even patronising?) in its portrayal of senior cardinals, but this doesn't really matter to the core themes of the piece. Its bold ending defies tradition, delivering something at once comic, liberating and bleak.

Reviewed on: 26 Nov 2011
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Tragi-comic depiction of events surrounding the election of a new Pope in Nanni Moretti's searching, satirical sideswipe at the Catholic Church in Italy.
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Director: Nanni Moretti

Writer: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Frederica Pontremoli

Starring: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Margherita Buy, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa

Year: 2011

Runtime: 104 minutes

BBFC: PG - Parental Guidance

Country: Italy, France


London 2011

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If you like this, try:

El Baño Del Papa
My Mother