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Cannes 2011: Nanni Moretti's Comic Success Habemus Papam

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In an uncanny coincidence, the arrival of Italian film director Nanni Moretti and crew on the Red Carpet at Cannes, and their walk up to the Grand Lumiere Theater -- cheered by thousands of spectators, photographers, and journalists -- was replicated, a moment later, as paparazzi photographers, in the opening shot of his film Habemus Papam, zoomed in on cardinals in red walking down an aisle, en route to select the new Pope.

The new Pope is elected, and yet -- within moments -- the lucky man has a nervous breakdown and screams: "Non ce la faccio!" ("I CAN'T DO IT"!). The rest of the film follows the depressed Pope's comic escape from the Vatican, while a psychiatrist (played by Moretti) tries to hold down the fort at the Vatican, keeping all the frantic cardinals calm with volleyball matches, card-games and lectures on depression ("it's actually described in the Bible," Moretti says. "The symptoms are all there!"). Meanwhile, the demented Pope, played by a sweetly serene Michel Piccoli, wanders the streets of Rome and ends up taking lodging in a hotel with a troupe of actors -- fitting for him as it turns out his life dream was really to be an actor.

While some critics have seen this movie as a heretical critique of the Catholic Church, the parody goes farther: behind all pomp and circumstance is an empty hole. A buffoonish man is hired by the Vatican to push the curtains of the Pope's chambers back and forth, to suggest that he is there. Contented by the simulacrum of presence (in a rather pop version of Foucault's Panopticon), the cardinals continue to play volleyball. The film exposes power, whether political or religious, as an illusion created by pageantry, ritual, costumes ... and curtains. An emphatic point in the movie is that what goes on in the Vatican can't "be seen".

This new film is not only masterfully put together -- from the shots of distraught believers in St Peter's Square to the Pope's therapy sessions with a female psychiatrist who doesn't know who he is ("what you have no family?") -- but most of all, it is hilarious, having already elicited many a chuckle in Italy where the film has been out since April.

Behind the humor, however, is a trenchant punch-line. The film poignantly shows how the Emperor may very well have no clothes, but no matter, people still need and want to believe in him: hence, the catastrophe when the vested leader opts out -- and refuses his symbolic role.

I will note that Nanni Moretti did not agree with my interpretation putting together power and pageantry.

"No, I simply wanted to show it is possible to renounce a role of great power, and that this is not an act of cowardice, but the strength to recognize one's own weaknesses."

Nor did he agree that the cardinals in the Vatican come off as demented old men in an assisted living home: playing cards, taking tranquilizers and acting peevish about who had more votes for the Pope role -- reminiscent of the feeble-minded childish men in power in Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove.

"No, I was simply touched by their sweet humanity," he said ingenuously.

Moretti is notorious for being diffident with journalists, and perhaps he was not giving his real interpretation? Or perhaps he wanted to avoid possible flack from the Vatican?

"No, the problem is you," he teased, as we sat on a hotel terrace overlooking the sea. "You are like one of those consumers in a supermarket who wants to buy one and get one free. You want the film AND you want the director to explain it!"

A moment later that he added, however, that he deliberately used the image of the curtains flying, to point to the hole behind them.

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At the end of the premiere screening the night before in the enormous theater, women attendants in the dozens ran in the dark to line the rows, holding hands and creating a human rope, to block the public from moving until Nanni Moretti and crew had walked down the aisles.

The film had been so effective that when the lights came on, one rather expected the women, standing in ceremony, to be dressed in red cloaks, like the cardinals. The public gave Moretti and Piccoli a standing ovation for half an hour, cheering like the faithful in the square.

"Did you ever feel like the Pope?" a journalist asked Moretti. "Unwilling to take the role of power bequeathed you?"

"Many times," said Moretti. "Can I just not pretend to disappear? There is a bit of this pope in me."