I recently saw the movie “Habemus Papam,” an Italian film by director Nanni Moretti at a tiny underground theater near Lincoln Center. The comedy, currently also playing in Philadelphia, stars Moretti, Renato Scarpa and Michel Piccoli, and takes its name from the famous Latin phrase “We have a pope” proclaimed by the Cardinal Protodeacon (the senior member of the lowest ranking of the three orders of cardinals) from the balcony of St. Peter’s upon the election of a new pope. (If you love keeping track of such intricacies, the announcement would currently fall to French Cardinal Jean-Louis Tauran, unless he were elected himself.)
The plot of the film is simple. A hesitant cardinal is elected pope in the conclave, and his feelings of unworthiness overwhelm him. He has a panic attack and cannot bring himself to face either the crowds or the mantle of office. Consequently, the cardinals bring in a psychoanalyst, an agnostic, to help.
Some hilarious scenes ensue, where the dottore tries to provide therapy to the worried pope surrounded by the college of cardinals, with severe restrictions on what he is allowed to discuss: His childhood and relationship with his parents? No. Questions of faith? Certainly not. What he is feeling? Only with utmost discretion.
The pope obviously sneaks out to ponder his future amongst the common people of Rome. While this is going on, an elaborate plan to fool the world, which is holding its breath outside, unfolds with an overweight Swiss Guard eating, drinking and watching billiards on TV behind the curtains of the papal apartment to silhouette His Holiness secluded deep in prayer and contemplating the future.
There were some laugh-out-loud moments, as when the incognito pontiff tells a clerk simply and confusedly “I have a parental deficiency. I don’t know what that means,” as if he were saying he had tickets to the wrong train to Florence.
Light-hearted, silly and mildly irreverent, the movie is pleasant diversion, especially if you’re interested in the ritual pomp and circumstance involved in the world’s longest-surviving and largest institution. Put another way, you’ll enjoy the movie if you want to see teams of cardinals from the world’s various continents competing against each other in a volleyball tournament.
But the film had potential to tackle some interesting themes: the theological issue over the resignation or severe mental incapacity of a future pope; the fact that the main character had originally aspired to be an actor and the implications of such a personality on the “global stage” in the wake of John Paul II; even the psychoanalyst’s own misgivings about religion. All were left without serious comment or even insightful quip.
Michael M. Canaris is an administrator at Fairfield University’s Center for Faith and Public Life.