The 2011 Italian movie, Habemus Papam, by director Nanni Moretti co-written with Francesco Piccolo, is a gem of a film.  

Unlike Shoes of the Fisherman and Hadrian VII it is not held hostage to the majesty and spectacle of the office of the pope.  It is interested less in the mystique and more in the humanity of the man who is Peter.

When it was released it generated a startling range of official reaction.  L'Avvenire, the influential paper of the Italian Episcopal Conference, lamented that "we shouldn't touch the pope -- the rock on which Jesus founded the church," but Vatican Radio seemed relieved that the portrait was not reduced to mindless stereotyping and the Vatican-influenced Jesuit journal, Civilta Cattolica was actually laudatory.

After the shock waves created by the Tom Hanks films -- The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons -- it was a pleasant and welcome development to see a film involving the papacy that was not the product of shoddy history, bad writing, and scandal-hungry Hollywood producers.

Habemus Papam is, however, also prescient. The newly-elected pontiff, Cardinal Melville, is a very reluctant papal candidate, and when once chosen accepts under acute duress.  

When it comes time for the Cardinal Protodeacon to announce to the world from the apostolic loggia the freshly minted Successor of Peter declines, and collapses into an emotional state that alarms the cardinal electors and accompanying papal staff.

They call in a psychoanalyst and unbeliever (played by the director himself) to help them navigate waters utterly foreign and fraught with danger. What do you do with a pope who appears to have a breakdown just prior to his first appearance to the faithful and to the world? 

Melville, although distraught by the enormity of his new position, is not especially unhinged. Genuinely humble and self-effacing, he embarks on a journey of self-awareness independent of his professional help, fretting aides, and the increasingly discombobulated cardinals.

Moretti has some fun with the wild juxtaposition of psychology with sacred tradition, the customs and conventions of a centuries-old institution with the new ways of a science that does not offer ready deference to established authority.

Cardinals agonize over the uncertainty created by this unprecedented state of affairs, Melville sets about traversing the streets of Rome in a quest for inspiration and direction (he goes AWOL with no forwarding address), and the psychoanalyst devises various stratagems to keep the cardinals distracted during the prolonged conclave (they have a pope who won't appear in public for the Urbi et Orbi blessing and given that the white smoke has signaled to the world that a pope has been elected and has now disappeared to boot things are not looking good). There is, however, a fair bit of Felliniesque humor that plays well and convincingly.

The pope returns, appears on the balcony, and I won’t give away the ending here – but it is a bittersweet conclusion to be sure, consistent with the character of the man who would not be pope.

Fiction, of course, but right now in Rome we have a pontiff who has resigned, we are beginning to appreciate the crushing pressures of the position, to see how easily the human is eclipsed by the aura, how the mystique subverts the mystery and the man, and we await the drama of the next act: the conclave.

Is there a Melville among them?


Dr. Michael W. Higgins is CTV's Papal commentator. He is also:

  • Vice President for Mission & Catholic Identity, Sacred Heart University
  • Chief Consultant, for “Sir Peter Ustinov’s Inside the Vatican” 6-part series
  • Author of Bestsellers: Power and Peril: the Catholic Church at the Crossroads , (HarperCollins, 2002) and Stalking the Holy: In Pursuit of Saint-Making (Anansi, 2006)
  • Author of Award-winners: Heretic Blood: the Spiritual Geography of Thomas Merton (Stoddart, 1998) and Suffer the Children Unto Me: An Open Inquiry into the Clerical sex Abuse Scandal (Novalis, 2010)
  • Past President of St. Jerome’s in Waterloo & St. Thomas In Fredericton NB