NEW YORK — Throughout his nearly four-decade career, the revered Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti has employed high-flying farce and trenchant satire that marries the personal with the political, often blurring reality and fiction. He created a media stir with his 2006 film “The Caiman,” a savage skewering of controversial Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, released just weeks before the country’s general election.
So when it was revealed that Moretti was making a film about a fictional pope set inside the hallowed halls of the Vatican, more than a few pundits anticipated a full-scale assault on the papacy. How hard would Moretti tackle the explosive issues of pedophilia and financial corruption that have engulfed the Catholic Church over the past decade?
Yet after “We Have a Pope” (“Habemus Papam”) premiered at Cannes last year, some critics noted with chagrin that Moretti had sidestepped those scandals altogether, eschewing any send-up of the church over its response to the crises. Moretti, a longtime lefty activist, was plagued by whispers that he had lost his edge. Even the Vatican could only muster a meager rebuke.
During a recent interview in a Manhattan hotel suite while in town for the premiere of “We Have a Pope,” which opened in the Boston area on Friday, Moretti shrugs off the criticism that his film lacks bite.
“I absolutely did not want to make the film that everyone imagined I was making about the Vatican,” he responds, speaking through a translator. “There are very grave scandals involving the Vatican. But people already knew about these things. Just like a child who in order to go to sleep needs to hear a familiar fairy tale, many people want to be reassured by hearing the same things recounted to them again.”
Moretti, 58, points out that the Catholic Church scandals have been covered extensively by print and television news outlets, in books and documentaries, for much of the past decade.
“If I had wanted to make a realistic film about the Vatican, I would have had to talk about these facts,” he says. “But sometimes one makes cinema in order to be able to tell a story that’s different or more enlightening than the reality that exists.”
In fact, the story that Moretti chose to tell revolves around the genial, self-effacing French cardinal Melville (86-year-old screen icon Michel Piccoli), who suddenly finds himself thrust into a role he never wanted when he’s elected by his fellow cardinals as the new pope — following in the footsteps of a beloved John Paul II-like pontiff.
Shocked and overwhelmed by his sudden ascension to the papacy — to be God’s divine messenger on Earth — Melville is overcome by anxiety, becomes panic-stricken, and flees into the recesses of the Vatican just as he’s about to be announced to the public from the balcony above St. Peter’s Square. A psychiatrist, played by Moretti himself, is called in to assist, but is warned that he should not ask the new pontiff about his relationship with his mother, his childhood, his desires and dreams, or almost anything intimate.
Melville eventually goes AWOL inside the city of Rome, briefly taking up with a repertory theater company rehearsing Chekhov (Melville once dreamed of becoming an actor). Back at the Vatican, the psychiatrist dispenses pharmacological advice and organizes a volleyball tournament for the stranded cardinals, and a Vatican official frantically tries to locate the missing pontiff while keeping his disappearance under wraps.
In person, Moretti, with his salt-and-pepper beard and piercing eyes, is a roiling mixture of gruff and gregarious. He says there’s part of him in both Melville and the nonbelieving, playful psychiatrist. Moretti identifies with what the new pope calls his “psychic sinusitis” — the heavy burden of expectations that Melville now feels.
“I created this term ‘psychic sinusitis’ to explain what I go through. It’s kind of a constant, continuous, psychic fatigue,” Moretti explains. “The desire to escape or to disappear and this feeling of inadequacy are also things that I feel.”
While “We Have a Pope” is suffused with farcical, absurdist humor, the framework for the film is realistic, and Moretti says that extensive research was done to re-create a believable version of the Sistine Chapel, the cardinals’ ceremonial garb, the setup of the papal conclave, and the voting process. Within that, Moretti says he wanted to invent his own reality.
“We don’t have the same old conclave that we’ve seen dozens of times in the movies and on TV — the intrigues, hatred, jealousies, power struggles, cardinals advocating and jockeying for the position. It didn’t interest me to show to the public for the nth time the same exact story. I wanted to create a conclave where not everybody wants to be the pope — indeed where most everyone prays that they’re not made the pope.”
A writer, director, producer, actor, and theater owner, Moretti is a renowned and revered figure in European cinema. But in the United States, his films are not well known, because most of them have had limited, if any, theatrical distribution here. While Moretti has been making movies since the mid-1970s, his ostensible US breakthrough came with the 1993 film “Caro Diario” (“Dear Diary”), hailed for its captivating, off-kilter absurdity and rueful, neurotic self-examination. In 2001, the director captured the Palme d’Or at Cannes for his poignant yet unsentimental drama “The Son’s Room,” which dispensed with the farcical to examine a guilt-ridden, grief-stricken family drifting apart in the aftermath of a tragedy.
Dubbed the Woody Allen of Europe, Moretti deftly fuses comedic neuroses and irony with an introspective and melancholic streak.
“He’s able to attack or poke fun at systems that are occasionally ridiculous, such as medicine, media, or politics. But at the same time he’s able to recognize his own fallibility, so there’s a healthy dose of self-satire in his films,” says Harris Dew, director of programs and promotions for the IFC Center in New York, which recently wrapped a weeklong Moretti retrospective.
On the surface, “We Have a Pope” may lack the mordant political satire of “The Caiman” or even “The Mass Is Ended.” But dig a little deeper, says Dew, and you’ll find a pointed critique of a powerful religious institution.
“I think the Berlusconi stuff lends itself to satire and outrage in a different kind of way than the issues facing the church,” he argues. “I think Moretti wants to tackle thornier issues and things that might not necessarily be immediately timely or connected directly to a current event. . . . The film makes Melville a very sympathetic figure. But it shows the Church as an institution in a not particularly sympathetic light.”
Indeed, Moretti himself agrees that, while he’s not a Michael Moore-style provocateur, he certainly doesn’t shy away from explicit political engagement. But those qualities are often framed in an unexpected manner in his films.
“I depicted the Vatican in a way that’s more difficult and critical than the typical way of depicting the Vatican,” he says. “Showing that empty balcony without the newly elected pope who is unable to accept his role, who renounces this role that’s been foisted upon him, in order to accept his own humanity. I think that’s extremely disturbing for a believer — and for the Vatican — to contemplate.”