We have a Pope – Holy Smoke and Mirrors

This is my review of We Have A Pope [DVD].

During the film the audience around me laughed continually, the opening scenes of red-robed cardinals filing in to vote on the next pope are very striking, and the end of the film is well-judged and moving. The basic plot idea is good: an unassuming old prelate, sensitively played by the octogenarian Michel Piccoli, prays not to be elected pope, which seems unlikely in view of the odds. When his worst fear is realised, he suffers a panic attack on the famous balcony, seconds before his announcement to a vast, eager crowd. A celebrated psychoanalyst, who happens to be an atheist, is called in to cure him, but the reluctant pontiff succeeds in escaping into the Rome crowds.

At this point, the plot loses its way. Despite the many amusing incidents and some expressive acting, it is unclear whether the film is meant to be pure comedy and farce – as in the overlong and therefore tedious scene where the psychoanalyst organises a volleyball championship to keep the cardinals occupied while held in seclusion pending the pope’s reappearance – or an attempt to explore deeper issues beneath a light-hearted veneer. It therefore misses the mark on both counts. What is the director’s intended message? He portrays a church steeped in magnificent but archaic and empty ritual, bedevilled with cynical politicking and obscene wealth, not to mention the self-indulgent, elderly male cardinals, yet I don’t think the film is meant to be anti-Catholic.

The film is certainly about a simple man’s sense of unworthiness but fails to develop this. The unwilling pope demonstrates himself time and time again not to be up to the job, which makes for a thin drama. I expected that he would show himself to be a truly good man, assisting the ordinary people he encounters with his wisdom. Instead, he appears self-absorbed, petulant under pressure and clinically depressed. Far from experiencing the lives of ordinary, real people, he gets mixed up in a theatrical troupe spouting Chekhov and it turns out he would really like to have been an actor but was rejected for drama school – another jibe at the catholic priesthood, it seems.

I do not object to the prominent role the director has given himself as the flamboyant psychiatrist, but it might have been better if he had remained in the wings to take stock of the film’s intended and actual impact.

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