Directed by Nanni Moretti (Sundance Selects, 2012)
Nanni Moretti’s lighthearted and melancholic comedy introduces us to a gentle and frail cleric who would not be pope—even though the college of cardinals has just elected him to serve as St. Peter’s successor.
After a long and contested consistory, the gathered flock of cardinals set their choice on French Cardinal Melville (Michel Poccoli), but just as the new pope is to be introduced to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, we hear a cry of anguish from the frightened pontiff, who bolts from the room like a runaway bride.
The pope’s miter is a frightening cup for Melville, and he balks at the idea of taking up the burden of caring for a billion Catholic souls. To calm their anxious prelate and encourage Melville to take up his holy office, the cardinals bring in a psychologist. When this strategy fails, Melville goes in civilian dress to another therapist, telling her that he is an actor with anxiety about his new role.
Loose on the streets of Rome, the tenderhearted pontiff passes among a small sea of ordinary folk and is touched by their humility and generosity. Here, outside the Vatican walls and far away from the pomp and ceremony of the papal court, the French cleric finds a thread of something that may be transformed into faith: not the iron certitude of doctrine, but a whisper of a prayer fashioned of fear and hope.
Moretti’s film does not lampoon the Vatican but rather shows us a pontiff and college of cardinals as shot through with humanity as most believers and Catholics. Still, in portraying church leaders as frail and sometimes frightened—though good-hearted—souls, Moretti has, like many contemporary Catholics, given notice that we no longer see our church leaders as all-knowing and wise parents. We have a pope, not a papa.
This article appeared in the June 2012 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 77, No. 6, page 42).