It is easy to see why many reviewers jumped on the chance to compare Habemus Papam to The King’s Speech. On the surface, the comparison is clear: two sympathetic men, thrust into the limelight almost against their will, asked to lead but in doubt whether they can. Both films even have a skeptical outsider enter the secluded world of the protagonist to try and help him with his problem. There are a couple of notable differences, however, which render the comparison invalid. For one, King George was always going to be favored by the audience, given the outcome of the film and his place and that of his country in the particular period in history. But with the recent scandals the Vatican has had to endure, elected (and fictional) Pope Melville has to fight more of an uphill battle in this respect. Unfortunately, explaining the second and most important difference would be spoiling the film, but it makes the messages of the two films completely different.
The premise of the film is fairly simple: a new Pope is elected, and the unassuming Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) is chosen as a compromise winner. The moment he has to appear on the balcony to greet the Catholic world, he gets, for lack of a better term, stage fright. An unnamed psychoanalyst (a role played by Nanni Moretti himself) is brought in to work him through the problem. Before this man can properly start his job, however, the Pope manages to escape the Vatican. As a result, we are left with a Pope in search of his true self wandering the streets of Rome, while the psychoanalyst, an atheist who is very sure of himself and the world, is confined in the Vatican because he knows the identity of the new Pope and is not allowed outside. The Pope knows nothing of the world he finds himself in, and the psychoanalyst thinks he knows everything of the world he is now confined in.
The transformation of the latter is arguably the more interesting of the two. Initially a skeptic, he gradually becomes more at ease with his situation, learning that between black and white lie shades of grey. In some ways, the psychoanalyst can be seen as a representation of the audience. Considering the negative image the Vatican has at the moment, Moretti gives the Catholic Church a surprising, and to some perhaps controversial humanity. Those of us who are not of the cloth will never know how much of this is true, but Moretti gives the cardinals that the psychoanalyst is stuck with a very human face. They have fallacies and eccentricities just like the rest of us. They are cheeky, petty, emphatic, and some of them can really hit a volleyball. Will this film change the way people see the Vatican? Probably not, but it does show that it is too easy to judge what you don’t know.
In the meantime, Piccoli’s Pope is faced with a dilemma that is also very human: am I a leader, or am I a follower? This is a question people wrestle with on a daily basis, so why not the Pope? Piccoli has the more difficult task, as the psychoanalyst is more a reactive role, while Pope Melville is a man in active anguish. Michel Piccoli plays him masterfully, subtle and without much pomp, and with much humanity. He needs just a look or a small gesture to convey so much of the internal conflict of the character. Of course it is still early, but the actor should most certainly be in the running for the Best Actor award here at Cannes. Moretti is clearly the lesser actor, but he does give himself the better lines. Other characters are given juicy material, and Jerzy Stuhr as the Vatican spokesperson is especially noteworthy. Technical aspects are all fine, but not remarkable, except the beautiful score by Franco Piersanti.
Habemus Papam is a conventional film in an unconventional setting, but as The King’s Speech (okay, it is a convenient comparison) showed, there is nothing wrong with a little conventionality now and then. The Moretti film does dig a bit deeper though, and as such is the superior film.