Nanni Moretti, We Have a Pope
Deeply shrouded in mystery, the election of the Pope is a strange amalgam of modern democracy and ancient ritual. It is also a circumstance that seems ripe for farce. At least Nanni Moretti, perhaps Italy’s most revered contemporary filmmaker, seems to think so. His newest film, We Have a Pope, which premiered last year in Cannes as Habemus Papam, is an often funny, sneakily moving investigation of the Vatican’s less-than-infallible process of choosing the divine, and one man’s rejection of his supposedly divine calling. Starring Michel Piccoli as a would-be Pope who disappears after his election and Moretti himself as the psychoanalyst charged with helping the new Pope through his post-election panic, We Have a Pope finds the director, as he did in 2006’s veiled Berlusconi biopic Il Caimano, pondering the inner life of one of Italy’s most powerful, iconic men.
Since his 1976 feature debut, I Am Self-Sufficient (Io sono un autarchico), Moretti has steadily built his reputation as Italy’s answer to Woody Allen, a dialogue-driven comedic filmmaker who tells accessible tales of urbane neurotics and oddballs in a straightforward way. He acts in most of his productions as well as writing and directing, and quickly gained fame for a filmmaking style which veers from broad comedy to tackling subjects not known for their levity. His acclaim grew internationally in the 80s, as he won the Silver Lion in Venice for his 1981 film Sogni d’oro and the Silver Bear in Berlin for his 1985 film La messa e finita. His most well known films on this side of the Atlantic are 1993’s Caro diario (Dear Diary) and 2001’s La stanza del figlio (The Son’s Room), with the latter winning the Palme D’Or in Cannes, where Moretti will serve as the Jury President for the upcoming 65th edition.
We Have a Pope opens Friday through Sundance Selects.
Filmmaker: For most of your career you told small stories, yet in your last couple of features you’ve increasingly focused on most sophisticated tales of very powerful men. What’s driven this shift?
Moretti: Il Caimano and We Have a Pope are very different films. This isn’t just about public figures or men in power. Its about the expectations we have for ourselves and others have of us. We Have a Pope is very much a film about roles. The Pope cannot fulfill the roles that the Cardinals or God has called him to fulfill. My [character’s] psychoanalysis is unable to fulfill the role the Cardinals called him to the Vatican to fulfill. So he creates a new role for himself as the organizer of the Cardinals free time. The Swiss Guard is called upon to interpret the role of the Pope, who stays behind the curtain. He likes that role. Because he gets a nice big apartment where he eats well. Where there is a big television where he can watch the billiard games. Meanwhile the man who is the Vatican expert, whose role is to report to the world what is going on at the Vatican no longer knows what is going on, so he can’t fulfill the role he’s comfortable with. He doesn’t have any information. He doesn’t know what’s going on. He’s improvising. That’s what interests me. The difference between the roles we’re called on to play and the things we’re capable of actually doing.
The films are very different in other ways. Berlusconi is a real figure. And [Il Caimano is] about a man who will not renounce his power. This film is about a fictional Pope who does renounce power. It isn’t an invitation to everyone who is in power to renounce it, however. It’s the story of this man renouncing power. He has to make amends with his fragility. In order to take on this role of Pope he needs to renounce his own personal humanity and he can’t.
Filmmaker: When watching Michel Piccoli’s performance, I couldn’t help thinking of Pope John Paul II, because of his interest in theater. What clerical figures did you draw upon when imagining this fictional Pope of yours?
Moretti: I spoke with one or two priests, because I wanted to know about the rituals and processions and conflicts. I needed to create a realistic frame in which to put my invented story. The framework is real, but the story within it is a work of imagination. The Pope that came before the Pope in the film who has just been elected, the image of the extremely large, beloved Pope who has just passed, that is the shadow of John Paul II, this beloved Pope. The reference of theater in the movie was not a direct reference to John Paul II, but instead representative of this passion, this interest, that had not been lived out. Drama is a vocation that had not been lived out. He himself says, “I wasn’t really good as an actor,” and in France when Michel Piccoli says, “I wasn’t a very good actor,” it gets a laugh from the audience because he’s one of the best, most respected actors.
Filmmaker: This is your first time working with him. How did he get involved initially? Does he like to be a part of the process of creating the character from the writing stage? Was this a collaboration you were intimidated by in any way?
Moretti: We had met once before. I used to run a small but very good film festival for a few years in Torino. That’s where I met him. He has to act in the entire film in a language that is not his own. I was a little bit embarrassed because it was him, but I asked him to do an audition. As if he’d been a debutant, he accepted. I sent him six scenes, which he memorized and he auditioned. I didn’t doubt his talent as an actor, but after his audition I didn’t have any doubt he could do an entire film in Italian.
He’s not an actor who needs to or wants to participate in the creative aspect of the film, he’s an actor who arrives on set, ready to work and understand the film very well. He’s ready to add his own humanity to the part. We never did table reads or anything like that, though. He’s the kind of actor I really like, because he’s extremely good at interpreting a role, but he doesn’t lose himself in the person he’s playing. I like those kinds of actors who interpret a role extremely well, but beside that performance you can see their humanity and their truth as an actor and a person. He’s a great actor, but I wasn’t embarrassed to direct him, to say, “I would do it that way.” He does it better than I would, but he understands my intentions better after that.
Filmmaker: Are you more interested in control as a director, or are you more on the improvisatory side? Do you want surprises to creep into the frame?
Moretti: Above all, it’s important not to believe those actors and directors who talk about improvisation so much. It is actually very difficult to make that happen. I’ve been making movies for 35 years; I haven’t made many, but I’ve been making them for a very long time. In my first films, I didn’t even consider improvisation. I looked for a rigor that was sometimes bordered on rigidity, in the camera moves, in the acting, in the movement of the actors. Now I’ve softened a little bit. Since I filmed my early films without sync sound, they were dubbed later, so I worked directly with the dialogue later, so I never used to talk to the actors during filming, where as now I do. Sometimes we’ll change something a little bit. During the filming of a scene or something. This is most likely to happen when we’re setting the scene and I’m talking to the actors, that we change something before we start filming it. But people improvise much less than directors and actors would have you believe. [laughs]
Filmmaker: Are there things about this film that surprised you about it once it was completed? Were aspects of it funnier, or more moving, than you had imagined? Does anything not work for you within it?
Moretti: I haven’t seen it much recently. It came out in Italy and the reaction was what I expected, but its been a while. Recently I’ve shown it in Austria, Spain, France, in the Czech Republic, but I present it and then I go to dinner! [laughs] I prefer to concentrate on the film I’m in the process of writing. When I watch my own film I get distracted by things that are outside the movie itself, like one day one of the actors playing a Cardinal cracked his femur playing volleyball.
Filmmaker: Was that on the dive at the end of the sequence?
Moretti: Yes [laughs]. Or like another day where Michel Piccoli was particularly tired and wasn’t feeling well. So I’m always thinking about things outside the film and usually my movies are set inside an apartment or some other small location, where this film was much bigger and was a much bigger job in that way.
When I started making films, I was shooting on super 8mm. Now you would just have a regular video camera. I’ve always auto-censored myself, to not make something that’s too big. Whereas in the last two films, I really haven’t censored myself so much. I operated within an auto-censorship mode on myself for reason of production and finance and resources. Now I don’t find myself doing that so much anymore.
Filmmaker: What is your take on the place Catholicism currently finds itself in? What does the future hold for Catholicism and how does telling this story reflect your own feelings about it?
Moretti: First I must say, I am not a believer. I was when I was a kid. Then the gift of faith began to elude me. I’m not proud of it, I’m not ashamed of it, it’s just the way it is. In the film, the crowd in the piazza is extremely happy when Michel Piccoli says, “We need a big change,” and I think it corresponds to the kind of reaction we’d have in the world if the Pope really said that. It seems to me that the fundamentalist Catholics are a minority. But the Vatican hierarchy is extremely slow. Without wanting to be too direct, it’s not just by chance that in the film the Pope leaves the Vatican, goes among the people, undercover, stays in a second-rate hotel, hangs out with actors and other normal people. I don’t want to be too pedagogical here. It’s clear that the Vatican should be more open and more aligned with the times. It seemed in ’78 that there was a Pope who would be so open, but then he died in one month after his ascension. Francis Ford Coppola in the Godfather Part III presents the hypothesis that this Pope was murdered in the Vatican — I don’t believe that. But that’s what the film presents, this idea of the murder of John Paul I.
The process of change within the Catholic church is extremely slow. Even in the case of the pedophile scandal, which is horrible — and it’s not just the scandal itself but the covering up of the incidents — but thanks to the demands of the media and of families it was finally opened up and talked about. So within the frame of realistic portrayal, the costumes, the prayers, the rituals, the voting, within that frame I wanted to have my own fictional story. I didn’t want to tell the story that everybody wanted me to tell, a collage of the scandals going on around the church, I wanted to tell my own story. Everything that people want to know, they can know, it’s not like 50 years ago. With the internet, newspapers, documentaries, a person can know what they want to know. I wanted to do something where the Vatican would have to deal with a Pope who in order to reassert his own role as a human, renounces his role as the Pope. This is very disturbing to believers. It is a critique that’s less easy, that’s less taken for granted. Above all, I didn’t want to tell the spectators what they already knew and what they already expected.