In the lead-up to its release in Italy earlier this year, We Have a Pope was met with outrage in certain quarters, with one bishop going as far as to label director Nanni Moretti an ‘instrument of Satan.’ The Holy See’s concern was to be expected: Moretti’s previous feature, the Berlusconi-baiting Il Caimano (The Caiman, 2006) did little to disguise its target’s identity, nor its director’s disdain. With multiple scenes of corruption and a daring denouement hinting at civil war, Il Caimano consequently raised heckles amongst the Prime Minister’s supporters when released during an election year; Berlusconi went on to lose.
We Have a Pope’s synopsis certainly carries seeds of blasphemy (which, as it happens, is all lawyer Bruno Volpe had to go on when launching his defamation lawsuit, having refused to watch the offending film). The College of Cardinals congregates in the Vatican to elect a new Pontiff; upon appointment, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) suffers an acute crisis of confidence. A psychoanalyst (played by Moretti himself) is summoned to ‘cure’ the Pope of his affliction, but, finding his efforts excessively curtailed (discussion of sex is predictably off-limits, but so too are his childhood, fantasies, dreams and memories), he recommends the Pope visit another analyst incognito, so as to discuss his anxieties more openly. On his first visit to the second therapist’s office, the Pope escapes the watchful eye of the Vatican’s spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr), and re-discovers his dormant passion for theatre whilst traversing the streets of Rome; meanwhile the assembled believers maintain their vigil in St Peter’s Square, patiently awaiting their spiritual leader’s unveiling.
Papal fallibility and hints of corruption in the conclave may be less than reverential, but the satire is far from aggressive; should avowed atheist Moretti have wished, there are numerous scandals with which he could have attacked the Church. Instead, the ecclesiastical crisis is handled compassionately, the result affectionately humanising the upper echelons of an institution desirous of positive PR now more than ever. Similarly, while the set-up might imply some degree of conflict between science and religion, as represented by psychoanalysts and cardinals respectively (‘the concepts of soul and subconscious cannot possibly co-exist’ – ‘we’ll see’), Moretti is willing to mock both sides (the second analyst is fixated on ‘parental deficit’, and prescribes ‘three sessions a week for a couple of years’ after a solitary, short assessment of her patient’s mental health). This possibly explains why, outside the aforementioned examples, the Church’s response has been relatively muted overall, with some Vatican-affiliated commentators going so far as to praise its realistic depiction of Papal burden.
But while less insolent than some might have expected, Moretti’s depiction of the College of Cardinals is nonetheless far from deferential. As the Cardinals gather in the Sistine chapel, reporters camped outside awkwardly explain the electoral process, emphasising that ‘nothing regarding the conclave can filter through to the outside.’ The assumed gravitas of the assembly is, however, undercut when the lights fail in the chapel, causing one hapless Cardinal to trip and fall in the darkness. During the ballot itself, the cardinals act like members of a very different kind of college, resembling schoolboys suffering through a test: copying ‘answers’ from their neighbours; scribbling corrections; tapping desks incessantly with their pens. As the votes are counted, they whisper the unfolding results to one another as if surreptitiously keeping abreast of football scores, all the while praying silently not to be called upon, as if God’s will were akin to a teacher selecting participants for a spelling bee. The following day, three of the visiting cardinals try to sneak out for doughnuts, but are rebuked by their seniors, despite sulky protests that they ‘won’t go far’. Later, when the analyst criticises their excessive diet of prescribed medications (one of the film’s more biting attacks – the clergy literally cannot sleep at night), they turn tattle-tale and grass one another up.
While the Cardinals spend their time acting like children, the Pope-elect is trapped in an act of a different sort. After hesitantly accepting his role as Bishop of Rome, Melville flees the red-curtain-draped balcony (and the adoring, packed audience that await him), his anxiety akin to stage fright. Such theatrical allusions are later made explicit, when the AWOL Pope adopts the guise of an actor so as to conceal his Papacy, citing occupational stresses including ‘travelling from one city to another, the rehearsals [and] the opening night’ as contributors to his agitated state of mind. Back in the Vatican itself, the spokesman spins to press and church alike in order to conceal the full extent of their predicament, whilst a member of the Swiss Guard is drafted in to impersonate the absent Pope, twitching curtains in the private chambers like Home Alone’s Kevin McCallister fending off burglars. But ultimately, it is a more troublingly deep-rooted artifice that torments the reluctant Holy Father. By confessing his fear that ‘God sees abilities in me I don’t have’, he admits to a core self-doubt with which the majority of non-Pontiffs must also contend at one time or another, regardless of individual faith (or lack thereof). Leadership, the film’s conclusion suggests, requires more than a confident façade; courage, on the other hand, can be as simple as recognising as much.
Dr Christopher Buckle
Researcher and freelance writer
University of Glasgow
 Philip Willan (2011) ‘Pope film sparks Catholic controversy’, The Telegraph, 19 April 2011, accessed at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/religion/the-pope/8461379/Pope-film-sparks-Catholic-controversy.html
 Ben Child (2011) ‘Nanni Moretti’s pope film receives mixed Vatican verdict’ The Guardian, 19 April 2011, accessed at http://www.guardian.co.uk/film/2011/apr/19/nanni-moretti-pope-film-habemus-papam