The papal conclave is a fascinating process because of its spiritual implications. According to Catholic dogma, the pope is infallible when he acts in any official capacity. What does that say about the cardinals who elect him? Do they temporarily have the power to grant infallibility? And what about the ones who vote for the wrong guy? Perhaps God denies them the power and/or wisdom to decide St. Peter’s successor. These are the thoughts I had during the opening of We Have a Pope, which begins with a conclave. Director Nanni Moretti addresses these questions in an oblique way since his film is not a grave religious drama, but a gentle human comedy.
The cardinals gather in the Vatican, sequestered until they reach their select the pope. They can communicate only through smoke –black for no decision, white for a new pope – so they are understandably annoyed when the room has no power. A clumsy cardinal trips in the dark right before the lights turn on. Starting with the pratfall, Moretti humanizes the cardinals until our affection for them grows. We hear their thoughts as the ballots are tallied. They’re all pleading with God for their name not to be chosen. And when they do settle on a new pontiff (Michel Piccoli), he’s freaked the fuck out. Right before he’s about to address the faithful, he cries, “I cannot do this!” then runs from the balcony overlooking St. Peter’s Square. A visit from a psychiatrist (Moretti) is no help. Once in plainclothes, the new pope gives his handlers the slip so he can wander through Rome’s streets alone.
From there, the story splits between the pope’s stint a commoner, and the psychiatrist’s attempt to preserve order in the Vatican. The psychiatrist, who admits he’s a non-believer, is our entry point among people who seem beyond reproach. Stuck as their prisoner, he passes the time by analyzing their medication and playing cards. He gently chastises the cardinals, and if they are offended by his tone, they do not show it. They seem to like him, and are good sports when he organizes a game of volleyball to combat their cabin fever. To the disappointment of the Australians, whose numbers are relatively small, the teams are split by geography.
Meanwhile, without his ceremonial robes, the pope relishes the chance to be anonymous. Any time he interacts with a stranger, we can see how he wonders whether he’s ready to lead a billion people. As the pope rediscovers his love of acting and Chekov, Moretti reminds us that men who spend their lives devoted to God are also men. They are are capable of fear and doubt, so alongside empathy, there is a sneaky appreciation for their responsibility. It’s a counter-intuitive way to have us admire their sacrifices, but it works because the pope and the others appear wholly decent, capable of surprising themselves.
While the pope is away from home-base, Moretti’s film plays out like a low-key fantasy. Due to his access to the Vatican and the terrific costumes, sillier scenes nevertheless preserve their realism. The fly-on-the-wall directorial style matches his sense of comedy; we are meant to feel like the psychiatrist, eavesdropping on a forbidden place. Like the faithful public who wonder when they’ll have a new leader, Moretti realizes his diverting middle section must draw to close. We Have a Pope has an abrupt ending, one that happens without drama or fuss. It’s sudden yet necessary, as it demonstrates the pope’s unplanned vacation was merely a delay from his duty. No matter how long the reign, Morerri reminds us, the pope is the Vicar of Christ before he’s a man.