I won’t call Habemus Papam one of my most anticipated films of the 2011 Toronto International Film Festival, but it was certainly one of the films about which I was most curious. The story of a cardinal whose unexpected election to the papacy sends him into (or confirms an already existing) depression won the Golden Globe in Italy for Best Picture and was nominated for the Palme d’Or at Cannes. Yet it appears to be being positioned as a satirical comedy in North America, with prominent synopsis room given in the TIFF catalog to the plot device of Moretti playing a psychiatrist being brought in to treat the new pontiff (who breaks down seconds before addressing the faithful in Saint Peter’s square).
There are moments of comedy, certainly. Some even border on farce. (Moretti”s psychiatrist is called in to assist the new pope, placed under house arrest until his patient is cured, and then told that pretty much any question he might ask is off limits.) The most successful moments of levity are more generally directed at safer targets than the church–the media, pompous psychiatrists, uber-competitive card players. When the focus shifts to the pope, things get somber, almost sad.
In avoiding incendiary satire or critique, however, Moretti neglects to give us much in the way of insight. TIFF CEO Piers Handling asked Moretti at a Q&A if we were to see political commentary in the renunciation of political power and tie it to current events in Italy? Not really, Moretti, said, making a jest that he generally agrees with all interpretations of his films but Handling’s was just wrong. An audience question claimed to be puzzled as to the pope’s motivation for resisting the office and opined that he wished the film had explored this more. He was “depressed,” Moretti replied, praising the character for owning and naming his own weaknesses but refusing to elaborate much beyond that.
It is, of course, every artist’s right to let his work speak for itself, but I get suspicious when I am repeatedly told that a film is respectful, serious, probing, or important but those who make such claims resist any attempts to unpack what it means. The pope visits a therapist and calls himself an actor. Is he being figurative to protect the office or is this what he really thinks? Moretti’s character begins to debate Darwin with one of the Vatican officials, but they are cut short once each side makes a statement and before either responds. I get that the film was deliberately attempting to be detached, but still… Every time the film threatens to actually go some place, to develop an idea (beyond the core fact that doubts are what make us human), it backs away. It is all implication and no statement, all deliberation but no decision. Dramatically speaking, we never get any white smoke.
Ultimately Habemus Papam felt less like a blasphemy and more like a failure of imagination. This wasn’t a movie. It was an idea for a movie, but it either ended where it should have begun (if it really wanted to explore the culture of Roman Catholicism) or started where it should have ended (if it really wanted the dramatic core to be the renunciation). Moretti laudably avoids the worst places this could go, but once he completes the set up, there’s just nothing there.
All of which is a shame because the film wastes a pitch perfect performance from Michel Piccoli who plays “il papa” as a Chance the Gardener figure having a dark night of the soul. There are so many interesting places this film could go, so many ways it could explore (not just satirize) faith…and we get a round-robin volleyball tournament between an undermanned Oceania team of Cardinals and the “Europe B” team?