The Catholic Church hasn't been known to take kindly to films it perceives as offensive; considering "The Last Temptation of Christ" and "The Da Vinci Code," there's been no small amount of lashing out at films it deems undermine church doctrine.
The Vatican is now taking early shots -- if not quite aiming its full invective -- at Nanni Moretti's Italian-language comedy "Habemus Papam," which deals with a fictional papal selection process and the dysfunction surrounding it.
"Why should we support financially that which offends our religion?" asked a writer in the Vatican-linked Avvenire last month as the film screened in Italy. "We shouldn't touch the pope -- the rock on which Jesus founded its church."
The broader reaction of leaders and lay Catholics, particularly in English-speaking countries, could be equally telling. Moretti, who came to American attention with a family drama called "The Son's Room" a decade ago, here takes on a far more taboo subject -- and with far more irreverence.
The film premiered for English-speaking audiences Friday at the Cannes Film Festival. From the start, when the electricity fails during the convocation, it's clear Moretti has comedy, even farce, on his mind as he portrays the selection process.
After the cardinals all silently pray that they will not be chosen (the responsibility is too much) an underdog candidate is selected --and promptly freaks out. Soon enough, the church has a full-blown nightmare on its hands, as the chosen candidate (Michel Piccoli) begs off on his inaugural address to the adoring crowds at St. Peter's Square and proceeds to spiral into a paralyzing depression. Basically, he doesn't anywhere near this job.
Psychologists are then brought in, allowing for the requisite laughs about repressed sexual desires. Curious about life outside the cloistered Vatican walls, the pope-in-waiting soon escapes into the streets of Rome, in a journey of accidental discovery not unlike Helen Mirren's country wanderings in "The Queen." A panicked spokesman tries to cover up the scandal. He only makes things worse.
Moretti hardly seems to have malice or apostasy on the mind --tenets are never specifically called into question -- but the humanizing and even satirizing of the papal convocation and cardinal mindset is bound to get under the skin of some Catholics. For centuries, this has been a process shrouded in holy secrecy, and Moretti is playing it for comedy.
That it comes on the heels of years of Catholic Church sex scandals and cover-ups won't help; if the Vatican is already trying to repair an image zinged by charges of incompetence or worse, a portrayal of circus-like ineptness won't help.
After finding that official protests often just stoke public interest, the Vatican lately seems to have realized that a muted reaction may be the best reaction of all. It has said it won't issue a formal condemnation of Moretti's movie.
Still, if the film finds an audience in the U.S. -- while there's no distributor yet, the film's comic accessibility hardly rules it out -- American dioceses may find it hard to sit by quietly. Moretti has already told the Italian press he wouldn't be surprised by a boycott. When it comes to Catholicism, it's usually the historic and the theological films that rankle and bring out the pundits. Moretti may show that a comedy can yield the same result.
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--Steven Zeitchik in Cannes, France
Photo: Nanni Moretti at the Cannes Film Festival on Friday. Credit: Pascal Le Segretain / Getty Images