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At The London Film Festival – We Have A Pope

October 14, 2011 by Simon Kinnear in Festivals, In Cinemas with 0 Comments

Here’s the second of my mini-reviews of films I’ve seen at this year’s LFF.

We Have A Pope
(Nanni Moretti, It, 2011)

It’s a shame they didn’t call it A New Pope, just so we could look forward to the superior sequel called The Vatican Strikes Back

Choosing the new Pope: it’s one of the world’s strangest rituals. A few dozen men hold a vote behind closed doors, on which rests the destiny of one man and the power and influence over one billion people. Shrouded in secrecy, smothered in ritual, it’s ripe for a piss-take – but how do you take the most sacred elements of Catholicism to task in a big-screen comedy?

The answer: you don’t. Not for Nanni Moretti the Pythonesque bite of Life Of Brian – he’s too nice a director, really, and this occupies the same heartfelt, humanistic universe as Dear Diary and The Son’s Room.  Yes, there is plenty of thought here about the conformist, repressive control required by organised religion, and traces of a bubbling anger from the non-believing director, but Moretti controls it, concentrating on the humanity behind the Papal robes and turning the Cardinals into an affectionate portrait of bureaucracy stymied by unforseen developments.

An apparent gift of a premise – what if the new Pope doesn’t want to be Pope? – is quickly revealed to be more appropriate to a short than a feature.  The first act, detailing the election process, is a hilarious piece of pomposity-pricking, painting the Cardinals as elderly children, peering over each other’s shoulders to see how their colleagues have voted, and keeping tally of the score.  Trained to deal with celestial faith, they haven’t a clue how to cope with a more human crisis of confidence, so they call a shrink (played, of course, by Moretti) and briefly this turns into The King’s Speech, played for laughs as the psychoanalyst’s work is hampered by the Vatican’s insistence that “the soul and the subconscious cannot possibly co-exist.”

Unfortunately, a lot of Moretti’s tonal decisions cannot possibly co-exist, either.  The opening stretches are so lean that Moretti is forced to open things out and have the Pope go awol on a voyage of self-discovery. It’s a pleasant enough character study (and a lovely, ironic tribute to the star, Michel Piccoli – of course the firebrand of Le Mepris and Le Grand Bouffe doubts he’d be a good Pope!), but toothless as satire.  Meanwhile, everyone else kills time by turning events in the Vatican into a farce, in which Moretti throws in a musical number and even a detour into the sports genre to keep things lively. It’s a lot of fun and a great piece of ensemble acting (the Aussies are brilliant) but Moretti never cross-examines their beliefs – whereas, in reality, these amiable buffoons are responsible for untold prejudice and preventative death worldwide. That’s why the ending, in which Moretti finally grasps the balls he’s been toying with throughout the film, comes too late to make a difference.

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