I’ve been thinking generally about Film as a Subversive Art since Vogel died last week, but I’ve been thinking specifically about the book’s take on religion since I rewatched Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope a few days ago. It’s one of the most effective antireligious films I’ve seen, in large part because Moretti’s approach is so understated. The movie, currently playing at Landmark's Century Centre, practically opens with a group of cardinals walking past a mob of reporters: Moretti bisects the shot so that the sacred and the profane are on equal terms—neither one more or less ridiculous than the other—a subtle foreshadowing of what’s to follow.
The movie concerns a newly elected pope (Michel Piccoli) who’s terrified of assuming the papacy. After a hilariously botched session with Rome’s top psychoanalyst (Moretti), he runs away from the Vatican and spends a few days posing as a normal man. He visits a bakery, rides public transportation, and sits in on rehearsals for a production of The Seagull (in a clever piece of doubling, one of the play’s lead actors also suffers an emotional collapse and has to leave the show). As the pope experiences a sort-of anti-epiphany in the secular world, secularity creeps into the Vatican. Barred from leaving lest he discuss the pope’s breakdown (which officials hope to keep secret), the analyst lectures the cardinals on prescription medication and depression and later, in the movie’s centerpiece, organizes them in a round-robin volleyball tournament.
It’s an extraordinary comic sequence. The arcane codes of the Catholic Church gracefully give way to those of volleyball (the analyst is no less a stickler for rules than his hosts, we learn), and the cardinals, dressed in makeshift jerseys, become parodies of sports movie heroes, flopping about in slow-motion. What’s so extraordinary is that Moretti refuses to ridicule his subjects: indeed, the movie’s cardinals are as lovable a group as the professors in Ball of Fire. But by replacing their religious uniforms with jerseys, Moretti presents them as men, no more and no less—a little silly and out of shape, perhaps, but no different than any other amateur volleyball team.
“This place has a pharmacy, an exercise room...” says Moretti’s character as he tours the Vatican in an earlier scene. The camera tracks graciously beside him as he does: it’s a perfunctory, emphatically awe-less shot. Moretti may not be a virtuoso filmmaker (even his funniest sight gags have a matter-of-fact quality to them), though he’s one of the most respected cinephiles in Italy. For years he’s run a cinematheque in Rome, and his production company, Sacher Films, has distributed major foreign titles, including Sylvain Chomet’s The Illusionist and Asghar Farhadi’s A Separation. His work as a writer-director conveys a fluid exchange between movies and real life—and sometimes the collapse of one into another. His 1994 masterpiece Caro Diario claims to re-create scenes from his diary, and while not all of it is autobiographical, the film still succeeds in showing how cinematic ordinary life can be (Jonathan Rosenbaum wrote a lovely essay about it for the Reader).
Moretti’s long-running comic persona is a sometimes-endearing, sometimes-grating kvetcher who’s seldom as smart as he thinks he is but nevertheless enjoys a deep love of life. The Moretti character is as much an everyman as a buffoon, motivated by a desire to do good in the world (or at least learn something) that makes him eminently relatable. In We Have a Pope, Moretti extends this persona to characterize nearly everyone in the film: the cardinals, the actors in The Seagull, even the overeager reporters we see at the beginning. It’s a modest way of suggesting that human beings are not united by anything spiritual, but by more mundane qualities like dissatisfaction and passive-aggression (in one of the best running gags, most of the characters end up admitting how much they love pastries). Yet it’s characteristic of Moretti’s radical good cheer that these mundane qualities come to seem much more real—if not more uplifting—than any profession of spirituality we hear in the film.