'We Have a Pope': Anxiety and surprise at the Vatican
Often described as the Italian Woody Allen, writer-director-actor Nanni Moretti has made several clever comedies, including 1985's “The Mass Is Ended,” in which he plays a former radical turned priest who returns to his village. The film won the Silver Bear at the Venice Film Festival. He went dramatic in 2001 with “The Son's Room,” a haunting tale of a middle-class Italian family grieving over the death of a teenage son. It won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Moretti, 58, is also well-known in his country for his leftist political views and a decade ago was involved in protests against Silvio Berlusconi's government.
In his latest film, “We Have a Pope,” he goes back toward comedy and religion. It opens in limited release Friday, after debuting last year at the Cannes Film Festival. Octogenarian French actor Michel Piccoli (“Contempt,” “Belle de Jour”) plays a French cardinal named Melville who is unexpectedly chosen as the new holy father. Because no one, including Melville, thought he would be named pope, Melville panics and refuses to go onto the balcony at St. Peter's Basilica to address the thousands waiting to hear from the new leader of the Catholic Church.
Moretti directed and co-wrote “We Have a Pope” and also acts in it, playing a psychiatrist (who is not a believer in Catholicism) called in to see if he can help the new pope. Moretti, who will head the jury of this year's Cannes Film Festival, recently talked about the film over the phone from New York via a translator.
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Q. Did you write the role of Melville with Michel Piccoli in mind?
I was thinking of him and I was hoping, but I didn't allow that idea to condition my writing. I had been a fan of his for 40 years. ... I wanted to finish a full draft of the screenplay and then I proposed the film to him. He is not a native speaker of Italian, so the first thing is that I dared to ask him to do an audition for the movie just to see if he could do an entire film in Italian. He accepted. So I sent six scenes to him, which he memorized and acted out. He did beautifully.
Q. Did you use a translator to communicate with him on set?
Q. What was Piccoli like to work with?
He didn't have ideas that were so rigid he wouldn't accept my suggestions. In reading the screenplay, he definitely understood immediately the character. I did direct him and tell him how things should be.
Q. You were raised Catholic, but you are a nonbeliever, just like your character in the film.
Neither [my character] nor I brag about this; we also aren't embarrassed about this. We simply no longer have the gift of faith.
Q. So since you don't have the gift of faith, why did you make a movie revolving around the Vatican? Did you want to satirize the Catholic Church?
"Satire” is not the right expression.
Q. What is the right expression?
I wanted to recount the crisis of a man. I wanted to recount the story of a man who feels inadequate in the face of all of the expectations that people have of him. I wanted to recount the depression of this man, and above all I wanted to make a film that surprised the audience a bit. I didn't want to make a movie that the public had expected. For example, a thousand times I have seen represented a conclave full of jealousy and people who are representing themselves as candidates. I didn't want to recount to the nth time that kind of conclave. I find it banal. It doesn't interest me what happens in reality. Films are also made to imagine a reality that is different and better. Therefore, in my conclave, not everyone does everything necessary to become the pope.
Q. What was the reaction from the Vatican and Catholics in Italy?
There've been a couple of reactions from fundamentalist Catholics that aren't very representative of the entire world of Catholics.
Q. What did you think of last year's winner at Cannes, “The Tree of Life”?
I liked it a little bit but not completely. There is also the fact I wasn't unbiased because “We Have a Pope” was there. I wished Michel Piccoli had won over Jean Dujardin [for “The Artist”], but I am not completely objective.
Q. Have you started a new film?
I am working on a new film. I am writing it, but I prefer not to talk about it now. I prefer to work on it.
-- Susan King
Photo: Nanni Moretti in "We Have a Pope," which he also directed. Credit: Philippe Antonello / Sundance Selects Release