No matter how capable we are in life, there are some responsibilities we’re simply not able to assume. We Have a Pope tells the story of a man who comes to this realization after several days of soul searching. His name is Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who’s part of a conclave gathering in Rome following the death of John Paul II. After several tedious and psychologically grueling rounds of voting, he’s elected Pope by a substantial margin. His initial reaction appears to be speechless surprise. But then comes the morning he’s to be introduced to the faithful, who have gathered by the thousands in St. Peter’s Square; the instant the Cardinal Protodeacon exclaims, “Habemus Papam!” to the cheering masses, Melville has a screaming panic attack and retreats to an inner chamber within St. Peter’s Basilica.
The spokesman for the Holy See (Jerzy Stuhr), who obviously understands the importance of good PR, attempts to buy time by announcing to the press that the new pontiff needed time for prayer and reflection before taking office, and that he should be making an appearance in a few hours, at which point his name will finally be revealed. Needless to say, it doesn’t go as planned. What’s worse, the College of Cardinals must abide by the laws of the Church, which clearly state that, until the Pope actually appears on the balcony and addresses the people, the election is not officially over. This means that the entire conclave cannot have any contact with the outside world. This is normally an endurable event. In this case, there’s no telling how long Melville will take. It could be days, weeks, perhaps even months or years.
The College, desperate to bring Melville out of his depression and lethargy, make a last-resort appeal to Professor Brezzi, a psychoanalyst (Nanni Moretti, also the film’s director and co-writer). Unfortunately, he’s so restricted by bureaucratic rules that he cannot adequately do his job. He’s forbidden to ask Melville questions regarding his past or anything even remotely related to sex. Dreams are okay, but only with extreme discretion. And he must do all this in the presence of the entire College, who must hear everything that passes between them. The kicker is that, because Brezzi has actually spoken with the pontiff, he must now remain within the Basilica, cut off from the outside world. In the meantime, the spokesman orchestrates a secretive mission to transport Melville to see Brezzi’s estranged wife, also a psychoanalyst (Margherita Buy). The College will be led to believe that Melville is in room by having a similarly built guard wander through his bedroom and occasionally ruffle the curtain.
At this point, the film becomes increasingly unclear in its intentions, with scenes that address the overarching issue in odd ways. Immediately after Melville sees Brezzi’s wife, he gives the spokesman the slip and begins wandering the streets of Rome, desperately trying to figure it all out. We learn, albeit vaguely, of Melville’s failed ambition to be an actor; we even get a few fleeting references to his mother and sister, the latter successful in becoming an actress. Meanwhile, Brezzi organizes an indoor volleyball tournament for the College, each team divided by continent. His reasons for doing this aren’t made explicit. Presumably, it’s to alleviate his own boredom and restlessness while at the same time providing the College with some physical activity. However, his dialogue suggests an ulterior motive, perhaps driven by his own hostile feelings. He seems resentful, for example, that he separated from his wife, who he believes was in competition with him over being the best psychoanalyst.
What this has to do with Melville’s crisis of conscience, I’m not exactly sure. It could be that, like Melville, Brezzi feels inadequate in his field of interest. However, his failure to diagnose and treat Melville was the result of imposed religious restrictions, not professional incompetence. Here’s some food for thought: Brezzi tries, unsuccessfully, to convince the cardinals that all of Melville’s depression symptoms are mentioned within the pages of the Bible – the only book they would give Brezzi access to. Meanwhile, the spokesman tries his hardest to maintain the illusion that Melville is within his room, although with each day that passes, it becomes clear that it cannot be maintained forever. What is clear is that this Melville must work through this on his own terms at his own pace.
Given the fact that the plot addresses a man’s reluctance to become the leader of a religious institution, and considering that both Moretti and the character he plays are both atheists, it’s tempting to speculate that We Have a Pope is about a crisis of faith. Let me assure you that faith never once factors into the equation. It’s not about belief or non-belief. Quite simply, it’s about knowing your limitations, about understanding that passion and support doesn’t necessarily equate to expertise. This movie could have been about being elected President, or being crowned King, or getting a job promotion; because each deals with the acquisition of power, the message would have been exactly the same. You can have a firm faith in anything and still know that you’re not qualified to be a leader.