The Critical Reception of ‘Habemus Papam’ Abroad
With the news that Nanni Moretti was making a film about the Vatican, expectations grew immediately about how scathing it may be, considering his lambasting of Silvio Berlusconi in Il caimano (2006). This was closely tied to speculation about how the Vatican might respond, though, as the Swiss newspaper Blick reported in 2009. Moretti had already obtained a blessing from Archbishop Gianfranco Ravasi, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture.
Moretti’s success or failure in his criticism of the Vatican and the reaction of the Church were repeated motifs after the film’s release, signalling the importance of the film’s theme and the auteur’s persona. This was accompanied by Moretti’s apparent dismissal of criticism. In the review in the Italian newspaper La Repubblica, Claudia Morgoglione reports Moretti’s insistence on the film’s authenticity – “I tried to respect Vatican rituals […] for the scene of the swearing in of the Swiss Guard we got a consultant. For the rest we watched documentaries” – but also his indifference to possible negative reactions – “I have no interest in the reaction that the film will have in that context”. Pre-empting a common critique of the film, the director continues, “In recent years we’ve read often of scandals relating to the Church, but I preferred not to be affected by those facts. My film is something else”.
After the resignation of Joseph Ratzinger in 2013, a few publications across the continent (from Neue Zürcher Zeitung) to Les Inrockuptibles returned to Moretti’s film, identifying its uncanny capacity to pre-empt history. The latter quotes the director’s own reaction: “I’m really embarrassed. What can I say? It’s true that sometimes cinema anticipates reality”.
The majority of reviews in Swiss film magazines, websites and newspapers treat the film in a relatively neutral way, providing descriptive accounts of the film and noting its presence at the Cannes film festival. The informative article in 20 Minutes (“Everything You Need to Know about Habemus Papam”), for instance, gives an outline of the story and a couple of brief “anecdotes” about the film. It reports that it’s the directors second time depicting religion, after 1984’s La messa è finita, and that “many found the film to be not violent enough towards the Church while Vaticanist Salvatore Izzo has called for a boycott of the film”, linking also to an article about Izzo’s polemic in Le Monde. The same kinds of comments are found in the overview on Neue Zürcher Zeitung. When Switzerland-based reviewers do offer an opinion, they tend to be the positive, picking out the clever nuance of the film and its humanism. The same article on 20 Minutes concludes by admiring Moretti’s “mad humour”, and the “humanism that makes Bishop Izzo a liar”. Critics on the film websites Ciné-Feuilles and Cineman appreciate Moretti’s ability to capture the complex reality of the church with humour and tenderness, and his ability to avoid the exhausting “international sport” of psychoanalysing the church, in a “gem of a film”.
The reviews in the French general and trade press are very positive in response to Moretti’s film – further exaggerating the idea that Moretti captured the perfect balance between nuance, humour, and tenderness. As Jean-Marc Lalanne writes in his review in Les Inrockuptibles, “you would expect Moretti to be less tender and more corrosive in this place”, but also recognises that the film’s “power” is in how it addresses an unexpected issue: the Pope’s passive act of resistance. In this sense, Lalanne suggests, the character merits his shared name with Herman Melville, whose character Bartleby also infamously stated “I would prefer not to”.
Cinephile publications only emphasise further this enthusiasm: for the magazine Positif the film is “great art!” (n° 585, Sept. 2011), while the critics of Cahiers du Cinéma voted it best film of 2011 (for its readers, it came second, after Von Trier’s Melancholia). When the film was released (after Cannes) Cahiers published two articles, including Charles Tesson’s “Of Men and Volleyball” (“Des hommes et du volley”, n. 670, Sept 2011). This article goes so far as to celebrate the presence of the Vatican volleyball scene not as “personal whim” but “a profound principle, at the heart of human activity, between individual experience and collective adventure”.
The film emerges a few times in Le monde, both in a positive review, but also in a profile of Moretti as a hero of the Italian left. Quoting a series of Italian personalities, from Marco Travaglio to Gian Piero Brunetta, it presents Moretti as the antithesis of Berlusconism and the nemesis of the ex-prime minister’s newspapers Il giornale and Libero (though actually the former published a positive review of the film). As mentioned, Le monde also published a news piece on the scandal with the Vatican, that similarly adopts slightly defensive tones in relation to the director.
If Moretti is the “darling” of the French press, the same can certainly not be said of the UK. Mainstream newspapers review the film in a generally negative way. The reason lies in what is perceived as an unconvincing disconnect in the film, particularly when Moretti and Piccoli’s characters are split up in the narrative: for Andrew Pulver in The Guardian it “could have been great, but it doesn’t quite get there”; while in the Financial Times Nigel Andrews “waited for the film to get funny, or touching, or pointful. It didn’t.”
Both The Guardian and The Independent moreover connect their disappointment in the film to its inability to be more critical of the Vatican (it is tempting to perceive a connection between the Catholic Church’s looser grip on British culture and this openness to its criticism). For Philip French “the film flails as it fails, refusing even to mention any of the current serious issues confronting the church”. For Anthony Quinn – at odds with Les Cahiers – “Piccoli’s touching performance is sadly at odds with Moretti’s poking fun at gullibility – a bunch of clerics playing volleyball as therapy – while failing even to mention the Catholic Church’s recent crimes. As satire it feels about as edgy as a mozzarella sword” (maintaining foreign critics’ disposition toward terrible Italian food metaphors).
It is not purely negative, however. Some newspapers report more neutrally on the film and the Vatican’s reaction, such as the Daily Telegraph, which moreover quotes Franco Zeffirelli – who is popular in the UK – and his attack on the film: “‘It’s a horrible cheap shot’, Mr Zeffirelli said. ‘I feel especially sorry for this Pontiff, who may not be a crowd-pleaser, but who is very civilised and reasonable’”. The most common focus of the more positive reactions to the films is universally Michel Piccoli’s acting: in the BFI’s “10 essential Piccoli films” includes Habemus Papam, writing that it “is far from being the best of Piccoli’s films”, but that the actor “is terrific, taking advantage of the comic potential of the premise while also portraying the vulnerability and anxiety of the runaway pontiff”.
In the American press, too, the volleyball scene is a lot less appreciated than in France: for Time Out, “The satire becomes more scattershot and strangely cuddlesome (didja know sequestered holy men enjoy socializing and playing sports, just like us?)”, in The New Yorker the scene comes across as “dramatic padding”. According to the LA Times, “the doctor provides lessons in pharmacology and volleyball to the clerics, in scenes bordering on cutesy”. The USA trades provide the space for a rare criticisms of the film’s gender misbalance: in The Hollywood Reporter, Margherita Buy is described as “virtually the only female character in this boys’ movie”.
These small snipes tacks tend to come in reviews that are overall more positive, however, again noting in particular the talent of Piccoli: his “rapturous performance” (The Hollywood Reporter); that he brings “dignity to the role and an innocence that’s less childlike than unworldly” (The New York Times); that the film has “great heart”, much of which from Piccoli who “despite being 86 is not decrepit and is capable of outsmarting the Vatican posse on his trail” (The Chicago Sun).
The American press moreover situates the film with a lot more objectivity than its European counterpart. Not only does it more commonly label the film as an arthouse product (both in relation to Piccoli, whose work in Buñuel’s films in the past is recalled by V.A. Musetto in The New York Post, where Nanni Moretti is also described as an “art-house favourite”, and by Roger Ebert in The Chicago Sun). The US press also takes a much more objective stance regarding the film’s criticism of the Vatican, leaving this question up to the audience (“Viewers hoping for a biting satire of the church and its pedophile priests will be disappointed” The NY Post) or mobilising it as a criticism of critics: “Ever since We Have a Pope was shown at Cannes, last year, many viewers have expressed disappointment that it fails to land a sufficiently stout blow on the Catholic Church – a sentiment that says infinitely more about the complainers than it does about the film” (Anthony Lane, in The New Yorker).