DIRECTED BY NANNI MORETTI
STARRING: MICHAEL PICCOLI, JERZY STUHR, RENATO SCARPA, FRANCO GRAZIOSI, CAMILLO MILLI, ROBERTO NOBILE, ULRICH VON DOBSCHUTZ, GIANLUCA GOBBI, DARIO CANTARELLI with MARGHERITA BUY and NANNI MORETTI
Nanni Moretti crowns the Pope at a staging of Chekov’s ‘the Seagull.’ I don’t know if I’m allowed to call it a ‘coronation,’ I don’t even know if it CAN be called that, the unorthodox revelation it was, but I take Moretti’s stance in ignorance – that of not wanting to learn. The play is in full attendance. The seats are all almost filled to begin with, and we have a hundred more of cardinals, nuns and colourfully dressed security guards marching in. Of course, there’s nothing funnier than a play gone horribly wrong; where one actor goes round the twist and renders all lines from the script with the stage directions as well. But that’s not why they were there. That’s not why they applauded.
I do not know if ‘We Have a Pope’ self-references Chekov, I could think of cinematic analogies at most. It is as elaborate, as intensive and as comprehensive with its opinion as a Pasolini film like ‘the Decameron.’ I haven’t seen anything like it before, but then I haven’t seen much. There’s something uncanny about a parody sketch in the fact that you need to reach a level of elaboration and a reassurance in the execution of it to even consider writing it. The execution and, as a result, the end begets the means or the motivation for the same. Let me rule pastiche out of this, the post-modern vehicle that it is. Pastiche could survive on the written word and the entropy of changing colours on its coat of paint called performance.
But think about this. Anyone can sketch a parody, but it takes real craft to even start to paint the rest of the picture, let alone paint it well. And, not to mention, it takes courage in a time where the world is content with leaving the rest of its canvas empty. Like ‘Shakespeare in Love,’ or the eccentric works of Sacha Baron Cohen. Like ‘Brazil.’ Like ‘Zoolander.’ It’s strenuous in the fact that there is so much necessitated in form of production design for the sake of a script that directs no attention towards it. Of course, I speak here as a writer who finds set-designing to be a daunting task on the lines of a necessary evil.
I’ve previously seen the internal chambers of the Pope’s residence in ‘Angels and Demons.’ We’ve also been treated to a tiny glimpse of it as yet another venue for Jacques Clousseau’s antics in ‘the Pink Panther 2.’ In ‘We Have a Pope,’ I come across the chambers for a third time. I can’t recollect enough to draw similarities, but I did spend a good amount of time wondering if it’s a chartered set. I also wondered how the Church permitted it. Granted that no filmmaker ever has And, granted that no filmmaker ever has shown the Vatican in anything but poor light, the Church permits this portrayal as long as one doesn’t go too out-of-bounds with his/her depiction. Steve Martin’s whoops-a-daisy surely runs along the net-cord, but then what the hell, you know? It’s art for art’s sake, after all.
Moretti, much like the professor he portrays, is irreverent. But not blasphemous. He’s the guy who finds psychoanalytical themes in the Bible in a utilitarian’s helplessness. The character makes his own luck. The filmmaker does too. His lack of faith doesn’t hinder his commitment to the parody. The production design is detailed to intimate proportions. The detail seldom steps out of tune. ‘Angels and Demons’ demanded an aura; we could almost smell the fumes from fires kept constantly aflame, the movie – a ritual in progress. Moretti doesn’t even light candles here in ‘We Have a Pope.’ He turns the conclave to a middle-school examination hall with pencils coming down on the table together, answers being scratched out; cardinals peeking at neighbour answer-scripts. You know it’s a comedy when someone falls. In this case, it’s Cardinal Brummer (Ulrich Von Dobschutz), the joke of the show; unpopular, and thus endearing.
I hope you’ve seen ‘Runaway Bride.’ Cardinal Melville (Michael Piccoli) is like Maggie Fleming in it. He is elated at his selection. He walks down the aisle. He panics. And he runs. Before a sweeping shot across the deserted polling chamber he locks himself in – I love the arrangement when the party is over with the furniture playing victim of human abandonment – he says he ‘can’t do it.’ A physician is brought in to get him checked. His blood pressure is normal, he is able to joke and most certainly smiles gentle. The problem, as we all know, lies within. Enter Moretti as the psychoanalyst whose position is as bad as that of Billy Crystal in ‘Analyze This,’ if not worse. It’s like interviewing Nixon with a dozen Watergates to hide than just one. I hope you get what I’m saying.
But Melville isn’t like Nixon, he shows potential to cooperate. Rajski (Jerzy Stuhr), who’s kind of a secretary to the Pope, locks the psychoanalyst in for confidentiality purposes, and goes to his wife (Margherita Buy) for second opinion. The psychoanalyst finds her clichéd. He says she’s got nothing but a parental deficit card that she plays all the time. But then she works. Sometimes, the cause is not what you identify, but an elaborate Placebo. In Cardinal Melville’s case, we know there’s no need for one. He goes with the diagnosis, takes his intermission and runs away, requesting to be left alone as he goes to satiate an unrequited passion for the stage.
In the meantime, the psychoanalyst becomes an in-house patient in an asylum of his design where he splits Cardinals into continents, picking captains based on their odds of becoming the Pope as per newspaper speculations, organizing a two-court Volleyball tournament in a courtyard that looks like the Union Jack from an aerial shot. He treats them like schoolchildren where we’re shown that he has two of his own – as stubborn, as difficult to manage. He’s as Darwinist as he preaches, being both Ringmaster and the main Clown act in this circus.
Moretti is sort of a Woody Allen of Italy, in writing and in performance. I’ve watched him before as all of writer, director and performer in ‘the Son’s Room’ which won the Golden Palm at Cannes in 2001, rendering him a staple ever since. It’s a heartbreaking film about a middle-aged psychoanalyst who, along with his wife and daughter, copes with the death of their teenage son in a striking depiction of the repair process. I found Moretti to be as incredible a central character as Allen, with the right amount of sarcasm, of anger, a subtle dose of neurotic impatience (even for a shrink) to weigh it down on the other side, and he tops it all with impeccable comic timing. He’s the unabashed bourgeoisie who can afford his cynicism as he always writes his character to be. He’s like an Alexander Payne who can act.
‘We Have a Pope’ is not a study. It’s a fable – hence the ‘Decameron’ comparison earlier, in spite of the fact that it’s heavily sensitized and works as a rather exaggerated cartoon of a man who’s almost like Casper, the Ghost, in all his gentleness and romantic humour. Like Sully from ‘Monsters Inc.’ I’m killing you with comparisons, you’d have to watch the film and place him on your own.
For once, we have a parody that’s not critical of an institution but still makes fun of it with a sibling’s deliberation. Moretti stands before the Catholic Church, fearless and with nothing in his heart but his own agenda, much like Chaplin against Hitler in ‘the Great Dictator.’ It’s not a grudge he holds, but an opinion. Both films ended with the humbleness of a man who is expected to be great but who really isn’t – something that the crowd would never understand. It doesn’t have the rebel’s intention to defame an existing giant, but the romantic’s inclination to put his faith in a new one. It doesn’t want Goliath killed, it makes David stronger. That’s Fabien-Socialist, in all essence.
Of course, Cardinal Melville will be forgotten in due course of time. There will be a new Pope to head the institution. No one will have been affected, nothing will have changed. The most we’d have in hand is a lesson learned – that Oceania needs more Cardinals, at least to make a Volleyball team; they’re miserable otherwise. And, of course, that you’d have a convincing winner in Africa no matter what. It’s best to know the odds before you place your bets. That’s all I have to say.