Monday, May 7, 2012

Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope - Pope Bartleby in a Chekhov play

A movie for a change, one that was, unknown to me, full of 19th century literature.

In Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope (2011), a newly chosen Pope (the flawless Michel Piccoli) has a crisis of conscience, or a psychological breakdown, or an existential attack.  The other cardinals are no help, an outside psychiatrist (played by Moretti) is no help, nothing is any help.  The film splits:  in one strand, Piccoli escapes the Vatican and wanders Rome, in a plot reminiscent of fairy tales where the king becomes a commoner, while the B plot is spent with the College of Cardinals in the sealed Vatican.  They do not know the Pope has fled.  The psychiatrist organizes a round robin volleyball tournament.

Two directions to go with We Have a Pope (2011).  One would be to pair Moretti with W. G. Sebald, not in thematically but as another creator of essayistic fiction.  Please see the 1993 Caro Diario and the 1998 Aprile for evidence.  Maybe avoid the one about the Communism and water polo.  I do not want to pursue this – not with this movie – but I will say that Moretti is a more interesting artist than any single film reveals.  This was my fifth Moretti movie so some of my pleasure was seeing how he reworked many of his early ideas and images.

The other direction, the literature.  The new Pope, before his election, is Cardinal Melville.  I assumed, and Moretti says, that the name came from director Jean-Pierre Melville, whose work I do not know well.  So as I was wondering aloud what the connection was ma femme said “Bartleby, you nitwit, the Pope is Bartleby!”  I am paraphrasing; she was much meaner than that.  But she was right, Cardinal Melville would prefer not to be Pope.  By the end of the movie he learns to say something besides “I would prefer not to,” but it takes him a while.

It is, of course, highly unrealistic that someone who has risen to the rank of Cardinal would suffer from a Bartleby-like anxiety, but Moretti is not a Realist.  “But I saw The Son’s Room (2001) and it is entirely realistic!”  I know, that one is different.  In this one, the College plays volleyball and the climax of the movie takes place at a mad performance of The Seagull, lines of which we have been hearing through much of the movie.

Anton Chekhov is the explicitly invoked literary figure in the movie.  Melville, before he joined the priesthood, wanted to be an actor.  He stumbles upon a theater company performing Chekhov.  The great Chekhovian themes of reduced energy, lost purpose, and failed endeavors are emphasized almost too strongly.  But Chekhov and the art of acting are forces of vitality in the movie, whatever the content of the play.  Bartleby prefers to watch Chekhov plays.

Stanley Kauffman, in his review of the film, argues that “Moretti and co-writers [Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli] came upon a good premise – the retreating pope – but have not used it to a really large enough conclusion.”  Meaning that a pope is probably not an ideal Chekhov character.  Probably not.  I suspect, though, that with the expectation of the Big Surprise removed, the film will grow a bit with repeated viewings.  Moretti’s movies are always filled with rewarding small surprises.


  1. The Jean-Pierre Melville Pope would have shot somebody while some lugubrious jazz played in the background.

  2. Thanks for that reference to Melville. As a writer, I am in awe of him: how could one writer have produced both Bartleby and the white whale?

  3. The J.-P. Melville Pope lives and dies by his own code of honor, imported from Japan!

    Shelley, those are the mysteries of creativity.