'We Have a Pope': An Unholy Mess
Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
No doubt you've heard it said of certain actors, "He/she could read the phone book aloud and make it interesting." It's an assertion that's never actually been put to the test, and with good reason (I do recall an SCTV skit with Robin Williams impersonating John Houseman giving such a performance, though), but you get the idea. In any event, the main, and perhaps only, asset of performer-co-writer-director Nanni Moretti's latest film, "We Have a Pope," is its demonstration that the great French actor Michel Piccoli can make wordlessly wandering around streets of Rome outside the Vatican interesting.
Moretti's ostensibly semi-comic fable posits a conference of cardinals in the Vatican to name a new Pope ... with said Pope immediately freaking out, having an anxiety attack, refusing to address the throngs outside the seat of the Catholic Church and falling into a near-catatonic state. We're set up for this catastrophe by a pre-election montage of hoards of cardinals accompanied by interior monologues, all of which voice the same sentiment: "Don't pick me."
OK, we know, or at least can infer, that being Pope is a pretty high-pressure job, and who needs it and all that. But the terms of Moretti's cinematic fable dictate that, in a horde of cardinals, there's such a lack of ego that none of them want the elevation. By extension, the Vatican itself is portrayed as not just unworldly, but also an actually anti-worldly institution and not in the least bit corporate. One can actually BE a devout Catholic and understand that the church doesn't really work like that. But what the hell, this silly conceit is what Moretti's going with, and it allows him to set up his scenario in which the church buckles down and asks an actual psychoanalyst (played by Moretti) to examine the Pope-elect.
Problem is, not only does Moretti not sell his conceit; he barely even sticks with it. Contrary to reports that have this as a story of the relationship between a new Pope and his therapist, the movie kind of goes "Roman Holiday," of all things, pretty soon after Piccoli and Moretti's earliest exchanges. Piccoli's Pope-elect escapes his keepers and goes wandering about, happening upon an errant actor in a local production of Chekhov's "The Seagull," who himself is having a hard time keeping it together to make it to the stage. This, for Piccoli's character, brings back memories of his younger years as a failed actor. And for this reviewer, it brought back memories of Piccoli playing an aging actor in a much better, relatively recent film, Manoel de Oliveira's "I'm Going Home." As for Moretti's character, left without his subject, he decides to teach the increasingly cuddly cardinals how to play volleyball. Or something.
The movie is a near-relentless intellectual muddle, throwing out signifiers and metaphors lazily and to no particular effect. Moretti's prior film, "The Caiman," offered some interesting observations on the age of Berlusconi, before sinking into a morass of Moretti's peculiar self-involvement, which, as it turns out, is slightly more engaging than the cloud of bland nothing "We Have A Pope" evanesces into, even as it advances to what it thinks is a big statement.
This is the weakest foreign language film I've seen since 2005's inexplicable "To Paint or To Make Love," which you might have never heard of as it never got an American release, and with good reason. That this is coming out here is due to, at least in part, to Piccoli, one of the last of the great Gallic screen masters of the last century. For myself, I'm very glad that the 86-year-olf actor has another three films under his belt as of this writing, and that they're by three much more notable filmmakers (Alain Resnais, Leos Carax, and the late Raoul Ruiz). I look forward very much to seeing them.
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.