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Habemus Papam

April 27, 2012
Habemus Papam

It’s hardly the most original thought, to muse about “what if God was one of us?” That is, if unbeknownst to us the poor, everyday schlub we bump into on the street is secretly the deity Him- or Herself. Some traditions even incorporate this as part of their beliefs: God — or some representatives of God — wander among us all the time. It’s unusual, though, to find a film like Habemus Papam which manages to explore the idea without bringing any sort of mysticism into it. And yet, the delivery seems to fall somewhat short of the concept. The Shoes of the Fisherman this is not.

It’s been a few years, so some may not recall that when the Pope dies, the College of Cardinals meets to select his successor. They lock themselves away in the Vatican in contemplation and prayer until they agree on a new Pontiff. He is introduced to the crowd gathered in St. Peter’s Square with the traditional words “Annuntio vobis gaudium magnum: Habemus Papam!” — “I announce to you a great joy: We have a Pope!”

Except this time the man selected is Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who is less than thrilled about the prospect. He grimaces his acceptance at first, but panics at the moment he is to be introduced to the world. They return inside and the Papal conclave continues.

A psychoanalyst (writer/director Nanni Moretti) is brought in, though he’s somewhat constrained in his methods; the Vatican spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) arranges to sneak the Pope out to another analyst (Margherita Buy) only to lose him on the streets of Rome. And as long as the conclave goes on, the rest of the cardinals are held hostage and unable to leave the Vatican.

While he’s outside mingling with the people, the Pope tries to come to terms with the awesome responsibility descending on him. He talks — mostly to himself — about the changes that need to be made in the Church and the strength it will take to pull it off. And there’s a great opportunity here to comment on how this sort of exposure to the world outside the Vatican’s walls is exactly what its head of state needs; the conclave represents the Church’s isolation from a world that grows increasingly frustrated with its isolationism; the Pontifex Maximus builds fewer and fewer bridges.

But Moretti mostly squanders this opportunity. There may be undercurrents, or I may be projecting my own thoughts onto the action. Either way, the Pope reaches no such satisfying conclusion and mostly muddles around while the atmosphere inside the Vatican grows increasingly surreal.

The film is funny, though it’s mostly in the spirit of giggling at the vaunted Princes of the Church rendered as human as the rest of us. I won’t deny the pleasure of watching an all-Cardinal volleyball tournament, but for the most part it grows old after a while. And once that joke fully runs its course, the story is brought to a close with the desperation of a writer who finds he no longer remembers what to do with his premise.

Worth It: not really.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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