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Interview: Nanni Moretti, writer-director of We Have a Pope

Director of moving and downbeat film on Catholic Church

Nanni Moretti, writer-director of We Have a Pope - interview

Did you ever think of casting yourself in the lead role of Melville, the newly elected Pope, who suffers a crisis of confidence?
When I was still in the initial stages of the script, I was chatting to friends and I told them I was thinking of writing a script about a depressed pope. They said, ‘Are you going to be the pope?’ But I never entertained the idea of being the protagonist. I thought it would be a much more interesting idea to have an older person with doubts in that situation. That’s why I cast the French actor Michel Piccoli. The name Melville wasn’t a conscious reference to the American writer and his story Bartelby. I was curating the Turin Film Festival whilst writing the script, and there was a retrospective of Jean-Pierre Melville, the French director. I got attached to this name, though of course Melville was his name in the Resistance – he was born Jean-Pierre Grumbach.

How did you set about creating your cinematic version of the Vatican City?
I wanted the recreation to look more austere and less baroque than in American movies. We shot a lot of the film in the Palazzo Farnese, a Renaissance palace in Rome next to the French embassy. We rebuilt the Sistine Chapel at the Cinecitta studios, and that’s where we recreated a great chunk of the facade of St Peter’s Basilica. It turned out be my most complex and expensive movie, and a great deal of care went into every detail.

Both visually and thematically, one of the most important themes in We Have a Pope is that of imprisonment – the characters seem trapped by their environments and their own and others’ expectations.
I was interested in flipping around traditional roles. The psychoanalyst Professor Brezzi [played by Moretti] finds himself imprisoned in the Vatican, where he is not allowed contact with the outside world, whilst the pope escapes and wanders round Rome. The analyst is supposed to be open to ideas in his work, but he’s actually a prisoner of his own dogma, even when it comes to setting up a volleyball tournament. The Pope, who is supposed to be a holder of dogmas, is actually full of doubt and questions – for himself, for the viewer and for the Catholic church.”

Do you think some viewers were expecting a film that was more openly critical of the Catholic church?
I don’t tackle the very serious problems of financial irregularities and paedophilia committed by the Roman Catholic church. I wanted a framework that was true to life – the processions, the voting in the conclave, the costumes – but within that I wanted to tell my own story, about my own Pope Melville. I wasn’t interested in the slightest in assembling a patchwork of newspaper articles about recent scandals. Perhaps some viewers wanted to be told things they already know. We Have a Pope is not a film of denunciation. In a way it’s a film of reassurance.

We Have a Pope is on selected release from Fri 2 Dec.

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam) Trailer

We Have a Pope

  • 4 stars
  • 2011
  • Italy/France
  • 102 min
  • PG
  • Directed by: Nanni Moretti
  • Written by: Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli
  • Cast: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti
  • UK release: 2 December 2011

Cardinal Melville (Piccoli) has been elected pope, but on the point of his first appearance to the faithful he panics and flees, so the Vatican calls in atheist psychoanalyst Brezzi (Moretti) to talk to the troubled pontiff. Attractively shot and full of amusing touches, Moretti's film is surprisingly moving and downbeat.

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