Tuesday, 20 December 2011

'We Have A Pope' review:

Nanni Moretti's new comedy opens on a grieving Vatican as throngs of Catholic mourners mass in the streets following the death of a pope. They are sombre but also excited because, inside the corridors of power, Cardinals from around the world have gathered to agree upon a new pontiff. After several inconclusive rounds of voting - tied between the bookmakers favourites - the assembled religious leaders turn to a surprise candidate: the humble, shell shocked Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli). Melville, succumbing to peer pressure, reluctantly assumes the mantle of pope, but before he can be introduced to the waiting world he suffers a massive anxiety attack, brought on by feelings of inadequacy, and runs away screaming. Desperate to find a quick solution to this crisis, the Vatican's press officer (Jerzy Stuhr) calls in the self-proclaimed world's best psychoanalyst (Moretti), an atheist.

'We Have A Pope' reads like a recipe for high concept comedy and possibly even a ballsy satire of the papacy. Yet those expecting a damning indictment of the institution will be disappointed. Moretti declines to make cracks at paedophile priests or the church's irresponsible position on contraception in Africa. However there is some implicit criticism of the church which comes in two flavours: the first of these is a recurring joke which sees Moretti mix the sacred with the mundane. Here the Cardinals are made to appear slightly ridiculous - if in an affectionate, gentle way - as they play volleyball in full regalia. Elsewhere they are made to behave like slightly naughty schoolchildren. They are not exactly portrayed reverently, though their religious conviction is never placed in doubt.

The second (and much more effective) way in which Moretti critiques the church is in the organisation's handling of Melville. This is effectively the story of a bewildered old man being bullied into spending his last few years sitting in a glass box being waved at. Forgoing a lot of easy laughs, Moretti treats Melville's sudden depressive episode with utmost compassion and, in the second half, tips the film towards drama rather than out-and-out farce. It's possible that a lot of the comedy is in delivery and doesn't carry over if (like me) you can't understand Italian, because Melville's scenes - as he goes AWOL and wanders around Rome - struck me as more sad than funny. Moretti's analyst character certainly is funny, but - beyond one initial (hilarious) scene as he's introduced - his story is quite separate from Pope Melville's belated odyssey of self-discovery.

'We Have A Pope' is a strange film that doesn't go where many will expect it to - or indeed want it to. It could be considered frustrating, toothless and too slight, and I can certainly see all of those criticisms in it. But if taken on its own terms I think it's quite a poignant and faultlessly humane look at how a frail, mentally ill person in such a position would struggle to find compassion or understanding amongst peers who deny the existence of depression - especially in one supposedly selected by God. In their one scene together, the analyst is not allowed to ask Melville any of the questions he might usually ask his patients. Discussions of childhood, repressed sexual desires, his mother and dreams are among those declared off limits by the pope's advisers, who insist the session takes place in the middle of a large room full of Cardinals. It is said you can feel all alone in a crowd of people. Moretti, almost without judgement, is asking us to imagine how it must feel to be pope.

'We Have A Pope' is out now in the UK, rated 'PG' by the BBFC.

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