Many of us probably like to think we have a pretty good handle on our spiritual beliefs. But do we? What if we were faced with circumstances that caused us to question the nature of those supposedly rock-solid truths? Such is the challenge faced by the protagonist in the new Italian comedy-drama, “We Have a Pope.”
Upon the passing of the Pope, the College of Cardinals convenes a Vatican conclave to select the new worldwide leader of the Roman Catholic Church. It’s a solemn occasion (the Holy Father has just died, after all), but it’s also one that’s seemingly full of hope and promise with the selection of a new shepherd at hand. In light of that, outside observers might be tempted to think that it’s an auspicious occasion, especially for those candidates who are considered leading contenders to ascend to the papacy. But, in this instance, when viewers are let in on the internal musings of the cardinals, one finds them full of dread, praying fervently not to be selected by their peers. As a group of mostly stodgy old men, they’re generally content with the status they’ve attained and have little interest in being saddled with the formidable responsibilities of managing one of the globe’s largest religious institutions during the waning years of their lives.Through several rounds of voting, no candidate receives a mandate. Speculation abounds in the press and in the assembled crowds in St. Peter’s Square about what’s transpiring, but no news is forthcoming from this secret proceeding. According to protocol, the cardinals must conduct their work in strict privacy and remain sequestered until a new Pope is selected and introduced to the public. Finally, after several attempts at making a selection, the cardinals choose a successor, and he’s not one of the favorites. A reserved, little-known member of the College, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), is chosen as the new leader of the Church, an unexpected development that takes everyone – including the soft-spoken cardinal – by surprise.
With the new Pope selected, the cardinals prepare to introduce him to the public. But just before the new pontiff is about to make his first appearance on the balcony above St. Peter’s Square, he flees in panic, claiming he cannot carry out his new responsibilities. He aimlessly wanders about the Vatican, desperately trying to figure out what to do. Meanwhile, the Vatican’s handlers, especially its chief spokesperson (Jerzy Stuhr), frantically go into damage control mode to save face, saying that the Pope has secluded himself in his apartment to pray for guidance. It’s an unprecedented situation for an organization that’s accustomed to everything proceeding with clockwork precision.
To help the new Pope cope with his circumstances, the Vatican calls upon an eminent psychiatrist (Nanni Moretti) to offer counsel. He’s of little help, though, because he’s not allowed to conduct his therapy sessions in private, and the pontiff is reluctant to open up about himself when encircled by a band of inquisitive cardinals hanging on his every word. It also doesn’t help that the counselor is an atheist, his background not having been vetted by the Pope’s handlers before being called upon to assist the Holy Father. What’s more, even though the counseling sessions don’t work out, the good doctor is told that, due to the confidential nature of his assignment, he must remain sequestered inside the Vatican with all of the cardinals until the new Pope has been officially introduced to the world. Anxiety thus begins to set in for more than just the new pontiff and his staff.
With the crisis dragging on for days, the Pope’s handlers decide to try a more radical strategy. They plan to smuggle the pontiff out of the Vatican to see another psychiatrist (Margherita Buy) – who just happens to be the estranged wife of the counselor who tried treating him initially – hoping that getting him away from everything will put him more at ease, allowing him to engage in meaningful therapy sessions. The staff tells no one of the plan, informing the press and the increasingly anxious cardinals that the Pope remains secluded in his apartment, continuing to pray for guidance.
Everything initially seems to go according to plan – that is, until the Pope decides to flee his handlers, escaping into the streets of Rome. He wanders about in anonymity, attempting to sort out his thoughts. Along the way he meets with an assortment of people who help him unravel his anxiety. He seems especially taken with a troupe of actors, who ultimately help him uncover the source of his trepidation. But, even with this question answered, he must still decide whether he wants to go back to the Vatican to assume the mantel that awaits him there, raising the all-important question, will he do it?
Challenging assumptions related to our spiritual beliefs can be daunting, to be sure. We often consider such truths as unquestionable givens. Yet there are times when we think we know what we want when, in fact, we don’t. And, when circumstances arise that put such issues to the test, we’re often ill-equipped to handle them. When matters of head and heart, intellect and intuition, thought and feeling, don’t match up in spiritual matters, the result is often a crisis of faith.
Under these circumstances, at the very least, we may feel disoriented, and, at worst, we can experience a full-fledged meltdown. In such instances, fear is nearly always the first reaction, but once that initial fright passes, we’re still left with the conundrum of what to do. In many cases, we usually gravitate to one of two options: (1) we stay locked in place, keeping our beliefs at bay, desperately trying to maintain appearances and denying our true selves, or (2) we move forward and evolve, allowing our inner feelings to come into alignment with our outer reality, a truly liberating experience if ever there were one. All of the principals in this film must come to grips with this choice, but the most important concern for each of them is, what will they do?
The new Pope clearly feels unprepared for his new calling, and he’s aware of the inherent disconnect between how he feels on the inside and the time-honored, highly institutionalized mission he’s expected to carry out. He’s unable to reconcile the discrepancy and doesn’t know what to do about it. His wandering through the streets of Rome aptly reflects his internal soul-searching and the pursuit of an answer that ever seems to elude him.
Of course, the Pope isn’t the only one who’s conflicted. The other cardinals, for example, are clearly torn at the film’s outset when they desperately pray to God not to be selected to serve the institution that they supposedly so ardently represent. And the psychiatrist has his own quandary, too, as becomes apparent when he, as an avowed atheist, quotes from the Bible to justify his contentions to his religious detractors.
The Pope’s breakthrough comes when he encounters the acting troupe. At one point he confesses that he had wanted to be an actor when he was younger but that he failed at it because he wasn’t talented enough. So is it any wonder, then, that he feels fundamentally incapable of taking on the responsibility of leading an institution so concerned with keeping up proper appearances? He knows he can’t do that, because he’s simply not that good an actor.And keeping up appearances is indeed important to the Church, something that impacts not only the papacy but also everyone and everything that the institution touches. In fact, the Vatican handlers are so desperate to convey the impression that everything is under control that they enlist one of the Swiss guards (Gianluca Gobbi) to take up residence in the Pope’s apartment to periodically give onlookers a vague, veiled impression that the pontiff is indeed secluded inside. (It’s enough to make viewers – and the faithful – wonder what other kinds of appearances the Church might be trying to keep up as well.)
The cardinals come to question their circumstances, too, thanks to the assistance of their involuntarily sequestered companion, the psychiatrist, who unwittingly assumes the role of an impromptu activities director. To alleviate the frustration of enforced seclusion, the good doctor plays cards with his religious cohorts and even organizes an ecclesiastical volleyball tournament. The once-rigid cardinals, who probably never would have thought of engaging in such uninhibited secular activities, relish their newfound freedom, experiencing more genuine fun than they likely have in years. With the shackles of their self-imposed limitations removed, they allow their joy of living to shine through, something that emerges in stark contrast to the highly regimented lives that they’ve been living for ages.
Of course, liberation need not always be quite so dramatic or deliberate in nature. Sometimes simple acts, like walking away from an intractable situation, may be the most effective response to one’s circumstances. It may also have the greatest impact, too, provided its significance is recognized for what it truly is.
“We Have a Pope” is a surprisingly substantive film on many levels. Its treatment of the subject matter is deftly handled, subtly yet effectively depicting the parallels between the Pope’s personal struggles and those of an institution increasingly struggling with its own identity, and it does so without ever becoming crass or taking cheap shots. It also features a lot of good humor, providing an effective counterbalance to the picture’s more dramatic material. Admittedly, some of the jokes go on a little too long, but most are genuinely inspired. The writing and acting are crisp, too, even if the pacing is a bit uneven at times, particularly in the film’s first 30 minutes. Overall, however, this is a very entertaining, thought-provoking film that’s well worth your time.
Taking time to take stock of our core beliefs (especially those of a spiritual nature) can be a worthwhile practice, particularly if we’ve allowed outmoded, inflexible assumptions to take hold over us. Even if we decide not to change anything after such an exercise, at least it affords us the opportunity to reaffirm what we do believe and to boost the joy of living that such beliefs give rise to.
Copyright © 2012, by Brent Marchant. All rights reserved.