Going into Italian director Nanni Moretti's tale of a modern-day Cardinal who flees the Vatican after he's elected to assume the papacy, one might suspect that the film would cast a critical shadow over the Vatican. With the Holy See rocked by financial scandals and a worldwide public relations meltdown over clerical pedophilia and cover-ups, the centuries-old institution is no doubt ripe for scrutiny from an artistic eye.
Who might be better than Moretti? One of Italy's most celebrated director/actors, he's also a self-described atheist to boot. But none of that critical edge is here in his latest, "Habemus Papam" (We Have a Pope) which begins with footage from the late Pope John Paul II's funeral. The reality stops there, however, and as the conclave of the world's cardinals assemble in the Sistine Chapel to discover who among them God has chosen to lead the world's one billion Catholics, one prelate, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), emerges as Supreme Pontiff. But God (and the Cardinals) chose a reluctant heir and just as the Vatican officials are about to announce the new Pope, Melville runs away.
"This time last year, the Church was in crisis with all the scandals and there were terrible stories written about the Church," Moretti noted following the first screening of his film in Cannes Friday morning. "Even in Poland, John Paul II was being questioned and people asked me to perhaps change the screenplay. But I already had my screenplay, my Pope and I wanted to go with my story."
In the film, the fictitious pontiff expresses his reluctance after dashing from near the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica and yells in agony over the burden placed on him. Eventually, the frightened prelates opt for a psychoanalyst (Moretti) to help the shell-shocked Pope lead his flock. As the psychoanalyst is sequestered in the Vatican, lest any of this information leak to the masses, Vatican officials escort the unnamed Pontiff to another psychiatrist in Rome who is unaware of his pontificate. After the session, he alludes his escorts and then hides among the citizens of Rome, eventually meeting an actor who leads him to a theater - a vocation Melville had once longed for.
"There's a secret that this Pope cannot explain to himself or others. He doesn't know. He cries out saying , 'I cannot!'," Piccoli explained about Melville in Cannes Friday. "We all have this feeling of panic at a moment of great responsibility."
Despite being outspoken, Moretti did not want this story to infer anything about Vatican policy or ideas of faith. He readily said that despite the allusion to John Paul II's death marking the beginning of his story, Melville's situation has absolutely nothing to do with the current Pontiff, Bendict XVI and that "Habemus Papam" is merely his story about a man frightened to take on a herculean task. The film is also not an indictment of faith either as Moretti emphatically expressed.
"[Luis] Buñuel used to say, 'Thank God I'm an atheist.' But I don't agree. I wish I had faith, but I just don't. I had a Catholic education, and it wasn't particularly [bad], but I just don't believe it. I'm not against those who are deep believers either...I wanted to tell my tale with my Vatican, my Pope and my Cardinals. People may have wanted me to do something different, but I wanted to surprise them actually. Some people thought I'd denounce some areas of the Vatican but that is why I chose not to do that...I wanted the story to be a surprise."