Early word on Nanni Moretti‘s “Habemus Papam” was that it was more or less in the vein of “The King’s Speech.” Well, perhaps in broad strokes, but unlike Tom Hooper‘s wildly overrated Oscar-winner, Moretti finds more depth, complex emotion and goes for a much braver, uneasy ending for his film. “Habemus Papam” is less about a newly elected Pope overcoming his fears to serve the church, but more about the expectations we put on these figures and in its own quiet way, it questions — without condemning — the Vatican’s staunch rules that keep much of the higher cardinals and officials out of reach from the everyday world.
When the film opens we follow the 108 cardinals gathered together as they enter the papal conclave to make the vote on a new Bishop of Rome who will become the Pope. As they gather round to cast their votes, we hear their inner thoughts and one thing becomes clear: none of them want the job. It’s a huge job, and a tremendous responsibility and as most are elderly and comfortable with their routines in their respective parts of the world, not many are eager to find their life uprooted. The first round of votes seem to point to Gregoire (who the media believes is the frontrunner) getting elected but in a final vote, the tide shifts totally and to the unknown Melville.
He is rightly stunned. As his colleagues surround him, he officially accepts the position. Officials hurry to present him to the crowd and just as the moment arrives, the new Pope exclaims in anguish and runs back into the nooks and crannies of the Vatican. Unable not only to face the throng waiting to see their new Pontiff, Melville himself is unconvinced that God has given him the tools and faculties he needs to do the job. He’s simply not ready. It’s an unprecedented event in the history of the Vatican and desperate times call for desperate measures and a psychoanalyst is called in to try and help the Pope. The key word here is try.
Played by Moretti, taking a role in his own film, the psychoanalyst tries as best he can to get to the root of the problem. Unfortunately, he can’t be left alone with the Pope to truly talk out their problems. Psychology is seen as being counter to the teachings of the church (a subconscious and a soul can’t coexist, it seems) and it doesn’t matter anyway as he is constantly surrounded by the other cardinals, their first and only meeting is superficial and not very helpful. Asking why he was even bothered to be called up, he is simply told that he was considered “the best” in his field. So, what do they do? They seek out the second best, who just happens to be Moretti’s wife.
As the Pope still hasn’t been seen by the public and due to the sensitive nature of what is going on, Moretti is remanded to the Vatican grounds to hang with the cardinals until everything is sorted out. Then, in secret, the Pope is taken into town to see the second best psychoanalyst. This session is much more successful mostly because the Pope can talk a bit more freely (but still can’t reveal who he is). But getting what he can off his chest does wonders and he leave the analyst’s office, decides to take a brief walk and uses the opportunity to shake the security detail on him and escape into the streets.
Back at the Vatican, the Pope’s runaway is kept secret. Some of the film’s more humorous moments come from the absurdity of the charade staged to convince the cardinals, and everyone else, that the Pope is recovering in his apartments, saying his prayers, and empty trays of food are brought forth to prove that his appetite is vigorous. Meanwhile, the cloistered psychoanalyst draws closer to the cardinals, playing cards with them, discussing faith and eventually, he forms teams and organizes a volleyball tournament under the guise that the Pope could use the show of strength from his cardinals (though one suspects that boredom is quickly settling in for the civilian doctor, who would like to leave). And while all this is happening, the Pope is among the citizens who have no idea who he is, as he tries to work out if actually being the Pontiff is something he wants, or is capable of doing, and though unspoken, he wonders if turning to faith for his whole life has fulfilled him.
So let’s circle back to that “The King’s Speech” comparison. Both hinge on a major political figure who are stymied in some way from fulfilling their duties. In Hooper’s film, it’s a stutter but in Moretti’s film, its nothing less than a crisis of faith. Not in God, but in himself. “Habemus Papam” ends with a speech, but it’s not the rousing, crowd-pleasing, tear-jerking, let’s-go-get-em stuff of “The King’s Speech.” Instead, it’s bracing, honest and even a little shocking and it ends the film on a question, but not for the audience. The question is pointed directly at the church that more or less asks if total devotion to God is worth abandoning other more Earthly passions for and if so, if that trade-off is even right or fair.
The keystroke to the success of Moretti’s film is that the thematic push-and-pull rides under the surface of what is a very often funny film. The laughs are frequent, but never mean. Moretti isn’t interested in condemning the church, or judging the choices of his characters in the past, but only asks if now, those decisions were fruitful. “Habemus Papam” succeeds where “The King’s Speech” didn’t, because the stakes are much more personal and real, and when the film ends, Moretti realizes that one speech is only just the beginning of a life unraveled that is slowly coming back together. [B]