The Papal Conclave, which elects the Pope, is ripe for dramatic imagination. It is the gathering of the Cardinals of the Catholic Church who are sealed into the Vatican only to come out after there is a new Pope (who will almost certainly be one of them). This could be the setting for great intrigue because it is all very secretive. There are no cameras or reporters. Crowds wait in St. Peter’s Square for the twice a day puffs of smoke from the burnt ballots. Black smoke means no one has received the necessary votes. White smoke means a new Pope has been chosen. Soon someone will come out on a balcony to announce “Habemus Papam” (We have a Pope).
It is in such a conclave that We Have a Pope is set. We watch as the Cardinals file into the chapel. We see them sitting at their desks, preparing to vote. When the time comes to vote we hear the cacophony of their inner prayers: “Oh, please. Not me.” That serves as a reminder of the awesome responsibility carried by the Papacy. There may be those who want to be elected, but it could also be frightening to be in that room knowing that it could be you. In the film, the first few rounds of voting show a split within the College of Cardinals. Soon they all find a compromise, Cardinal Melville. When the vote is cast and he is asked if he accepts, he says, “Yes.” At that moment he becomes the Pope.
After giving the new Pope time to change into the white cassock, one of the Cardinals goes out to make the declaration. After the words “We have a Pope,” there is a primal scream. Melville is beside himself. He is full of doubts he cannot do this. Everything grinds to a halt. Here the real story begins. So do the film’s problems.
This could be a set up for a dramatic story or for a comedy. Director Nanni Moretti wanted to do both. The Cardinals call in a psychiatrist to try to help the new Pope come to terms with his panic. He tries to get to the issues, but the Cardinals don’t really allow him to ask any of the right questions. After a while the new Pope manages to escape and wander around Rome incognito looking for his own answers. Meanwhile the psychiatrist is locked in with the Cardinals, and the Vatican spokesman who knows of the Pope’s escape creates a cover up, even deceiving the Cardinals.
The Pope’s sojourn is the drama. He is very much alone, even when in a crowd. He alone knows the weight that he is carrying. He meets a company of actors, one of whom seems to feel the need to do the whole play by himself. Melville knows that at some point he will have to deal with his situation, but for now he is struggling with how he will do that. He sees a world that is waiting for him, but knows the world needs something he does not have.
As the Pope deals with his angst, back at the Vatican the psychiatrist is leading the comedy portion of the film. As the Cardinals dither with nothing to do, the psychiatrist sets up a volleyball tournament to keep them occupied. This is the part of the film that just doesn’t work. It is possible to have humor in a serious film, but it needs to be organic to the situation. I can’t imagine this collection of bishops and heads of the curia can’t think of anything to do in this crisis. There would be more than a few alpha males in this group who would be looking for action. Instead they just sit around playing cards, wishing they could leave to go get cappuccino. There is an absurdity here that detracts from the more somber aspects of the story.
In spite of my problems with the film Melville’s quandary resonates with me. I expect that many who have felt the call of God will know what he is going through. He does not have a crisis of faith. He firmly believes that the Cardinals and God have called him. His problem is that he suddenly believes at his very core that they are wrong. He is not (in his mind) the person who should be leading the Church. There is no easy fix. He finds himself in a no-win situation—abdicate (and bring turmoil to the Church) or serve in the office poorly (and hurt the Church). It is easy (and a bit clichéd) to say that God will provide the power. If Melville cannot find that power, what is he to do? What will the Church do?
The film treats the traditions of the Church with respect and takes Melville’s problem seriously. It does not look for an easy answer. Had the film had a better sense of what it wanted to be and to say, it could have been much more worthwhile.