Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Jerzy Stuhr
Director: Nanni Moretti
Runtime: 102 min.
Verdict: A lovely lovely film.
Genre: Drama, Comedy
I was reminded of Synecdoche, New York. Probably around the middle, which accounted for some of Habemus Papam’s most interesting moments, where the curiosities of my dirty mind were stoked endlessly. Cardinal Melville (Mr. Piccoli) is on the run, and we’re served with one of those medium-shots with traffic in the foreground and the subject somewhere in the middle of it, invoking one of cinema’s overused (but still effective) shorthands. This is an old man, every bit as old and just as fragile as the one in A Separation, and as he reaches the pavement he trudges along for a while before he looks back directly at us, a fear writ large on his face, and he starts running. It is a blatantly (?) Brechtian moment, a conceptual representation of the whole running-away-from-our-gaze thing, and one which surprisingly touches us later on, when the Cardinal tenderly expresses his wish to just vanish as if he never existed. But Mr. Moretti follows him, and he later admits this to be a real interesting case. Maybe after Berlusconi it sure could be.
The Cardinal “just happens” to walk into what seems like a store predominantly for women, or at least one filled with them and stuff for them. He doesn’t know where to go, it is a state of panic and general confusion, and he just wants to run away from it all. He looks around and walks and bums into a woman. He gets on the escalator and overtakes a couple of women. The meeting with a female psychiatrist seems to be bearing its weight on him. He gets to the towel section, and throws himself over just to catch his breath. A shopgirl offers him a glass of water, while several other customers (probably) look at him. He walks into a bar to make a call and a lady offers him her cell phone, and while he makes the call they look at him. Later on, we see him riding a bus, sitting next to a lady, and while he’s muttering his prayers she looks at him.
What these moments do is
Oh, I wouldn’t want to go so far as to claim that Mr. Moretti is being subversive or wanting to wink at something “scandalous”, or that he seeks to expose some sort of hypocrisy ala Mr. Moll‘s film. His film is far too gentle for those shenanigans. The warm tender face of the Cardinal couldn’t contrast more starkly to the palpable gruffness of Vincent Cassel’s. Rather, Mr. Moretti is more concerned in the temptations of humanity, and the Cardinal merely meanders around to feel the aesthetic pleasures of life. I’m reminded of Kazantzakis’s The Last Temptation, his nightmares, the anguish of human forms, and his reluctance to take the heavy burden. In one of the film’s great moments Cardinal Melville sits around a table with stage artists and desires to lose himself in the cacophony of everyday murmurs rather than bear the burden of humanity, a call not coming from somewhere up above but through a television set. That the Church and its cardinals have been frozen in time, where prison dodgeball hasn’t been played in over fifty years and where their beliefs are not merely orthodox but probably archaic, should be considered more than an atheist’s downgrading of a religious institution. Because Mr. Moretti respects this place, respects its democratic inclinations, respects the purity of these cardinals, so pure they seem to be children. Sort of like institutionalized children. They prefer delicious cream-filled doughnuts and a Caravaggio or a Chekov. One might claim most of them are no more than archetypes, and I would want to refute that argument by claiming that it is one of the film’s intentions so as to be able to put anybody in Cardinal’s Melville’s shoes. He respects their beliefs, and understands their sense of religious responsibilities. He doesn’t intend to trump the Church or anything, or to hail science, and rather pokes jovial fun at both of them. It is a time where both can co-exist, and although he “gets” the administrative aspects more than the theological ones, the weight of The Last Judgment is just as much a real duty as an aerial view of Vatican is for the security personnel.
I was speaking of seeking the aesthetic pleasures. Mr. Moretti structures Cardinal Melville’s escapade around such pleasures, eating a freshly baked doughnut (?), or listening to music, or watching a rehearsal of The Seagull. Or just being among people. During a year where Mr. Terence Malick wanted us not to merely look at but look beyond and ask why, Mr. Moretti finds his man of God losing himself in the exact opposite, not concerning him with the what or why, but finding pleasure in the surface. It is not much unlike the condition Mr. Joe Pantoliano’s character finds himself in The Matrix, wanting to return to the bliss of tasting chicken without any awareness. It is the temptations of these everyday pleasures Cardinal Melville seeks, and to not have to worry about the tough decisions in a time where he understands the Church needs to be aware of the zeitgeist. It is to escape from having to assume both the administrative and theological aspects, to both be politically relevant and spiritually ahead of the curve. The film both establishes its opening sequences in epic widescreen long shots as context (stakes), and runs away from it all by resorting to predominantly medium shots for the rest of its running time, prepared to take the Cardinals not as a college but as a bunch of individuals, finding them in their rooms, or dividing them into volleyball teams. To describe all of this as mere stage-fright is to greatly reduce what the Cardinal is running away from. Here is a man not questioning his faith, but a man who is unsure of himself.
Habemus Papam, probably rightly so, is filled with such moments, tender moments, graceful moments, moments of kindness, moments that neither are laced with sarcasm nor weighed down by irreverential satire, moments that touch us. Cardinal Melville is wondering what he would need to say during his speech, and there is a beautiful little moment full of humility he shares with a fellow passenger. If it is not one of the great performances of the year Mr. Piccoli delivers, it certainly is the most graceful one. And there’s Mr. Moretti himself whose performance is an absolute joy in itself. The thing is there are great many pleasures to be had in the film, the sort of pleasures that inspired Jim Emerson to write his essay on falling in love with a film. In the midst of the chanting, the head of the conclave asks for a moment, and there is a charming goofiness that is reined in with minimum of fuss. Mr. Moretti walks into the film and his conversations with the cardinals and the editing beats (Cardinal Melville putting forth a mild objection to the psychiatrist’s lack of faith comes to mind) to graceful comedic notes. Oh yeah, here’s a film I have fallen in love with.
And then there’s the ending. It is a moment of heartbreaking grace, and Mr. Moretti, in the head of an organization as big as the Vatican, finds an example for Italy’s former Prime Minister to seek a lesson from. What with all the economical mess these are unsure times, and in Cardinal Melville there’s a man who’s humble enough and courageous enough to admit his frailties. As he looks down upon the people, there is unimaginable kindness and love in his eyes. It is one of the year’s most beautiful moments, and certainly the purest.
Note: Just as the cardinal turns away from Cardinal Melville and towards the balcony to announce the new Pope, there is a simple ascending camera movement, sort of like a fraction of a crane shot, and from the height of the balcony it achieves the sort of vertiginous affect caused when the Giant Wheel starts achieving its height. For a man who is about to be declared the Supreme Pontiff, it is probably shit-scary.