If you want to understand theater, you should watch the Italian film Habemus Papam or (more or less), “We Have a Pope.” I picked it because the box said that it was hilarious. And generally, I find that other countries do a better job with comedy. In America, they tend to be over-produced and over-complicated. A good example is Le Dîner de Cons (The Dinner Game). The American remake Dinner for Schmucks was reasonably funny, but it gets awfully sidetracked on unnecessary subplots and smooths away too many of the character’s rough edges. (Admittedly, I loved Barry’s mouse taxidermy.)
Habemus Papam is very amusing at times, but I would hardly call it a comedy. If Shakespeare had written it, we would call it a “problem film.” It tells the story of the election of a new pope. At the beginning of the film, all the cardinals are casting ballots and the camera shows a number of them in close-up with the voice-over, “No me, Lord, not me.” As I understand it, this is very accurate. Most Cardinals have no interest in being pope. As a cardinal, they have prestige, a good job, and they get invited to all the best parties. They’re Catholics, not protestants! Being Pope means a lot of work.
They finally pick Cardinal Melville to be the next Pope. He is definitely not up to the task. In fact, he looks shell shocked throughout the rest of the film. But not much happens for the rest of the film. The new pope runs away and wanders around Rome anonymously. The cardinals, all stuck at the Vatican until the pope goes out on the balcony to greet the people, sit around playing cards and volleyball. Throughout, Melville seems to be reflecting on his life. He had wanted to be an actor, but failed and so succeeded rather brilliantly in the church.
My take on the film is that religion is above all theater. Cardinal Melville has not lost his faith—it is probably stronger than ever. Just as he continues to love the theater while being no actor, he loves God while unable to play the part of a spiritual leader. The denouement of the film is at the very end, and it shows very clearly how much everyone in the church depends upon everyone else playing their role. The film asks an important question, “If you truly loved God, would you ever take part in a formal religion?”
Despite these important issues, the film is filled with joy. I think it does an especially good job of showing that church leaders are regular people with all their quirks. A good example is when the Oceania volleyball team—which only has three players—scores a point. It is the climax of the volleyball sequence. If the three-man Oceania team can manage to score a point, then maybe God really can do anything.
The film is also beautiful. Kudos to Alessandro Pesci (cinematography) and Paola Bizzarri (production design).