04/06/2012 09:20 am ET | Updated Jun 06, 2012

Interview: Director Nanni Moretti and We Have a Pope

Sipping water in a SoHo hotel, director Nanni Moretti reclines in a chair and says, through an interpreter, that his English isn't good enough for an interview: "What little English I knew has disappeared with time," he says.

Moretti, whose award-winning films have made him one of Italy's favorite filmmakers, was in New York to talk about We Have a Pope, his first feature in five years. The film, about a newly selected pope who has a crisis of confidence (or is it of faith?) and refuses the new job, is a change of pace for Moretti, whose films have tended to focus on the personal and the political.

But, as he noted in an interview, while he had seen numerous films depicting the conclave of cardinals that selects a new pope, he was tired of the clichés and wanted to offer a different take -- one that allowed for doubt and, yes, humor.

Q: What is striking at the beginning of the conclave sequence is the fact that all of the cardinals are thinking, "Don't pick me." Where did that idea come from?
I don't know what actually happens in the conclave. Nobody does. I know what I've seen on TV and in movies -- and I didn't want to show that kind of thing for the thousandth time. I didn't want cardinals putting their own names forward, or intrigue or plots or power struggles -- or groups of votes that move from one candidate to another. We've seen that all too many times. It may be the reality -- but I found it banal and easy. I make movies to record a different possible reality.

I watched a lot of documentaries and did research. And in the research, I found that, frequently, once a candidate is elected, he never feels ready or worthy for the job. Supposedly even (Joseph) Ratzinger (the current Pope Benedict XVI) felt he wasn't worthy. But, in my opinion, I don't think there are many people who believe that Ratzinger didn't feel he was ready or worthy.

Q: What sort of Catholic are you?
I'm not a believer. When I was a child, I had a modern Catholic upbringing. But I gave that all up over 40 years ago. I'm not bragging; it's just a fact.

Not being a believer gives me a certain distance from the church and allows me to give humanity to the cardinals and the pope. What interested me was creating a realistic frame and then putting a story within that frame that was invented. So I reconstructed the Sistine Chapel to scale at Cinecitta and, within this realistic framework is the story I invented -- the story of a pope who alternates between doubt, sadness and responsibility.

Q: How was the film received in Italy?
Before it came out, people were speaking about it disproportionately to what happened afterward. But I'm used to people talking about my movies without having seen them first. After it was released, at least people had seen it when they talked about it. It went over well in Europe, particularly Italy and France. People have expectations of my films, which I always try not to meet. Many people expected a frontal attack on the Vatican. But I didn't want to do that. I believe cinema should surprise the audience; whatever they're expecting is probably waiting for them at home on TV. Cinema should surprise people.

Q: How has the satisfaction you take from making films changed from when you started?
The most difficult thing in the world is to understand things about yourself. But there are two things that were there at the beginning 35 years ago that are still there.

One is that I'm still curious to go and see other people's movies. The other is that I still have the desire to recount stories I think about through cinema. These are still intact after all this time. Of course, in Italy, people now have more expectations from a film of mine. The important thing is to not let yourself be blocked or paralyzed by those expectations.

I will say that, 30 years ago, I was like a tank -- I was really determined. Nothing was going to stop me. Now, when I write a film, I'm more critical and have more doubts. When I'm filming, I doubt everything I do. But I will say that the films I've wanted to make, I've been able to make.

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