Friday, April 6, 2012

Reverend's Reviews: Hippity Hoppity Habemus Papam

There was an episode of TV's South Park a few years back that hilariously linked both the tradition of the Easter Bunny and the continuance of the Roman Catholic papacy to a Da Vinci Code-esque coverup of the shocking "truth": Jesus's pal St. Peter was actually a rabbit. It therefore seems doubly appropriate that the Italian-French dramedy We Have a Pope (also known by its Latin translation, Habemus Papam) is opening in the US today, just in time for Easter.

The film opens with the Church's cardinals gathering for the traditional conclave to elect a new pope in the wake of the previous patriarch's death (actual footage of Pope John Paul II's funeral is used in these early scenes). After several rounds of voting, they elect a humble, little-known brother, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), to serve for the rest of his life as the "Vicar of Christ" following in the footsteps of St. Peter. The cardinals and the waiting world are shocked soon after when the new pope refuses to be introduced and makes an unprecedented demand of more time to think about whether to accept his appointment. "God sees abilities in me I don't have," Melville declares to his confounded fellow prelates.

Seeking solace and direction, the not-yet-publicly-known pontiff flees the conclave and his handlers for the streets of Rome. He gets a room at a hotel, meets with an unaware psychiatrist, and falls in with a troupe of actors performing Chekhov. Meanwhile, the other cardinals are held captive in the Vatican along with another, decidedly secular psychiatrist (played by Nanni Moretti, who also wrote and directed the film) initially brought in to counsel Melville. As boredom sets in, the doctor organizes the cardinals into an international volleyball tournament.


We Have a Pope is similar in plot if more serious in tone than 1986's Saving Grace, which starred Tom Conti as a pope who tires of his responsibilities and escapes the Vatican for a small Italian village. Moretti's sense of humor is casual and observant rather than slapstick-based. I feel conflicted, though, about this movie's finale. I won't give it away, but I continue to ask myself whether it is overly pessimistic or refreshingly honest?

Piccoli gives a wonderful performance as Melville and is truly the film's heart and soul. This great French actor's resume spans nearly 60 years, and he has worked for many of the greatest directors of all time, including Godard, Bunuel, Hitchcock, Costa-Gavras and Louis Malle. He hasn't yet been in a Martin Scorsese production, however, and I would love to see the two of them pair up before Piccoli's career comes to an end. Piccoli could easily play a vicious mobster, a kindly grandfather or another Catholic cleric for Scorsese.

As a former Roman Catholic priest and current Reformed Catholic bishop (yes, I went to reform school, which I recommend to all Roman Catholics), I was most impressed by how much of the Church's rituals, traditions and clerical garb Moretti gets right. No movie or TV show purporting to depict the Catholic Church passes muster with me unless it accurately depicts these essentials; that is what doomed, in my opinion, the otherwise intriguing and intelligent series Nothing Sacred back in 1997. We Have a Pope also features impressive recreations of the facade of St. Peter's basilica as well as the interior of the Sistine Chapel and other Vatican locations, many of which I've personally toured twice in the past, so I can testify to their authenticity.

I don't know if non-Catholics will appreciate We Have a Pope as much as the "papists" out there probably will. But given the top choices at the box office right now -- namely The Hunger Games, American Reunion and Wrath of the Titans -- adult viewers will likely thank God for Moretti's religious flight of fancy.

Reverend's Rating: B

Review by Rev. Chris Carpenter, resident film critic of Movie Dearest and Rage Monthly Magazine.

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