Who Died and Made You Pope?
by JOHN ANDERSON
John Anderson on Nanni Moretti’s We Have A Pope, opening in New York April 6 and the rest of the country at the end of the month.
THE Vatican is often portrayed as a hotbed of power politics and ecclesiastical intrigue. But does anybody really want to be pope? Following the most recent papal conclave, in 2005, it was reported that Benedict XVI had prayed that he wouldn’t be chosen. Back in the 1950s, when the future Pope John XXIII was the patriarch of Venice, he wrote to his sister, “Who wants to be more than a cardinal?” And few have made their aversion more apparent than Celestine V, the hermit-monk elected in 1294 by a deadlocked College of Cardinals.
“They threw a Hail Mary,” said John L. Allen Jr., a Vatican expert and senior correspondent for The National Catholic Reporter. “Celestine V had a reputation for holiness, but he was not a player. They had to drag him out of his monastery. He never even made it to Rome; he got as far as Naples, and the reality weighed on him so heavily he quit. So it’s not like the circumstances of the movie are completely unprecedented.”
The movie is “We Have a Pope” or “Habemus Papam,” the Latin words traditionally spoken after the election of a pope. As depicted by the Italian director Nanni Moretti the story imagines a conclave that couldn’t have gone more wrong: When the assembled cardinals elect a French cleric named Melville (Michel Piccoli), he promptly has an anxiety attack, declines to make his traditional appearance on the balcony of St. Peter’s and refuses the office. The church fathers are thrown into what might be called, in secular terms, a tizzy.
Criticism of the Roman Catholic Church, even the kind of mild ridicule contained in “We Have a Pope,” frequently leads to outrage. The film’s reception in Italy has been muted since it opened last year (it opens in the United States on Friday), but perhaps that’s strategic. Even as the Italian Catholic journalist Salvatore Izzo called for a boycott in the pages of L’Avvenire, the official newspaper of the Italian bishops, another prominent Vatican watcher, Andrea Tornielli, wrote in La Stampa that “personally, I think it’s better to use the weapon of a boycott only in those cases of works which are truly ‘blasphemous’ — of which, alas, there’s no shortage.”
And as Mr. Allen reported, the journal Civiltà Cattolica, which has semi-official Vatican status, and Vatican Radio both took the position that “We Have a Pope” was inoffensive, while the Italian journalist Vittorio Messori praised the film in Corriere della Sera for countering stereotypes “of preening cardinals lusting for power.”
Mr. Messori has gotten some agreement on this side of the Atlantic. “The idea that the pope would be overwhelmed by his responsibilities isn’t hard to understand, especially when you think of someone who’s elderly,” said the Rev. James Martin, a culture critic for America, a Jesuit magazine, and author of the book “Between Heaven and Mirth.” He said the idea that the Vatican would be open to psychology — a psychiatrist, played by Mr. Moretti, is brought in to treat Melville — isn’t hard to accept.
“The only sort of flaw is that it’s difficult for people in the Vatican to treat the pope like he’s an equal, so it’s hard to recommend things to him,” Father Martin said. “One of the reasons that John Paul I died so early, according to several sources, is that people around him were afraid to say, ‘Holy Father, you need to go to the doctor.’ ”
Mr. Allen, who described himself as a big Nanni Moretti fan (“He’s like the Woody Allen of Italy”), said the premise of the film was theologically correct. “Once he accepts election, he’s the pope, and they’re stuck.” In reality the pontiff would probably be convinced to resign. “The church has a body of law, the code of canon law,” Mr. Allen said. “And Canon 332 deals with papal resignation. The pope has to freely step aside. He can’t be voted out. He’s got to decide on his own.”
Misrepresentation of fact is what incurred the wrath of the New York-based Catholic League against “The Da Vinci Code” in 2006, and, later, its sequel “Angels & Demons.” But the league president, William Donohue, said he planned no action regarding “We Have a Pope.”
“We went after ‘The Da Vinci Code’ because of the argument that it was based on fact, when it was based on fiction,” Mr. Donohue said. Though he hasn’t seen the new film, he said that based on what he had read about it, he saw no reason to protest. However, one thing did bother him: “Why is it every Easter we get treated to some movie like this?”
Mr. Moretti, reached by phone in Rome, took no credit for the timing of his film’s American release, on Good Friday. “That was the distributor,” he said referring to Sundance Selects/IFC Films.
Jonathan Sehring, the president of IFC Films, said the choice of date seemed like “a natural.”
“Is it a cheap Hollywood marketing hook?” he asked. “No, I wouldn’t go that far. I consider myself a Catholic, and I love the movie. It’s not mean-spirited. I thought it a sweet, wonderful film.”
But Mr. Moretti said that the timing shouldn’t matter, that he didn’t intend to make a “denunciation” film of the church.
“It’s up to us whether to believe it or not, but almost every cardinal says they are terrified, that they don’t feel up to the job,” he said. “Apparently they all feel this way. I’m very surprised that people might be surprised that the pope is human.”
At the Immaculate Conception Center in Brooklyn, the Rev. Robert Lauder, who also teaches philosophy at St. John’s University, has been presenting the Religious Film Festival since 1992.
“It raises lots of interesting stuff,” he said of Mr. Moretti’s film. “We’re all neurotic. We all have minor mental problems. This guy has a major anxiety attack. It might happen. It’s analogous to a man being elected to public office, who looks progressive, then pulls a couple of boners. It doesn’t mean he’s bad, or that we were wrong to elect him. And it doesn’t make any difference, just because he’s the pope.”