Habemus Papam (2011)

The Pope has just died, and the conclave meets to elect a new one. After several failed elections, an inconspicuous candidate, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), is voted the new Pope. Unable to handle the strain, he refuses to come out on the balcony, rendering the Vatican immobile. A psychoanalyst is summoned, but he does little to reassure Melville, pushing the Pope to find other ways of relieving his anxiety—eventually running away from the Vatican altogether.

The setup is clearly ambitious. “How many movies do you see about the Pope feeling insecure?” I asked Maki, convincing him to include this in our Moviemov: Italian Cinema Now schedule. I had expected Habemus Papam to be a dramatic piece, extremely heavy and serious. Reading the synopsis, I imagined that there would be very little action, and that most of the film would focus on deep conversations between the Pope and the psychoanalyst. But Habemus Papam is something else entirely. It turned out to be—of all things—a comedy! I cannot count this as a fault, but watching the movie made me feel strange: I was laughing at cardinals, at the Pope! The point: to show their humanity. Rarely do we see religious people as anything other than holy (except in extreme cases like pedophilia and embezzlement, but those are different issues). Yet here we see them joking around, dealing cards, playing volleyball (in slow motion), being silly. Here we see them fearing the papal burden, praying for God to spare them from such a life. How strange, indeed!

I love the cardinals in this film. Their refreshingly honest portrayal successfully brings across the point of the movie. I actually think they took the spotlight away from the Pope. Although apparently a veteran actor, Michel Piccoli falls flat in this film. As one Rotten Tomatoes reviewer observed, he “just looks shell-shocked every minute.” Instead of appearing insecure and pitiful, the Pope comes off as annoying and cowardly (except when he talks about theater, at which points he actually comes alive). I felt irritated by the ending, which is not only premature but also unsatisfactory. I wouldn’t blame this entirely on Piccoli though. Conceptually, it’s very difficult to combine high drama and this brand of laugh-out-loud comedy. The project might have been flawed from the beginning. Habemus Papam proves entertaining enough, but is overall a major disappointment. We should have watched something else.

‘I’d even tend towards a double round-robin tournament.’ ‘Double round-robin, no. We’d die.’

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