We Have a Pope

Michel Piccoli as the pope, flanked by the Swiss Guard in We Have a Pope


A movie for every day of the year – a good one



11 October



Second Vatican Council convenes, 1962

On this day in 1962, Pope John XXIII formally opened the Second Vatican Council. The first Vatican Council had been held nearly 100 years before, the most remembered of its declarations being that the Pope was infallible, when speaking ex cathedra. But back, or forward, to the Second, its aim being, broadly, to work out what the hell to do with the 20th century. The solution was to modernise. Out went the insistence that the Catholic church was the only way to sanctification and truth. Out went the Latin mass. In came a renewed emphasis on Scripture. In came a more pastoral role for bishops. It also, more incidentally, ended the Catholic idea that Jews individually were somehow still responsible for the death of Jesus Christ. The Second Vatican Council has rankled with some conservatives ever since, causing some ardent “antis” to break away, usually on the matter of the Latin mass. Four subsequent popes were present at the Second Vatican Council – the future Pope Paul VI, John Paul I and II, and Pope Benedict XVI.



Habemus Papam (2011, dir: Nanni Moretti)

“Habemus Papam” (We have a pope) – the two word announcement traditionally made by a senior cardinal on the balcony of the Vatican when a pope is elected – starts off Nanni Moretti’s gentle and unexpectedly generous comedy about the papacy. There are no stories of child abuse here. Instead we get a genuinely charming story about a cardinal (a brilliantly humane Michel Piccoli) elected pope against his wishes, who then goes into a grand funk at the thought of all that responsibility. A shrink (Moretti) is hastily sent for, and after much fun has been had at the expense of Vatican protocol, and its members’ disinclination to believe that the unconscious and the soul could co-habit, the shrink has achieved very little indeed. So the pope does a bunk and goes walkabout in the streets of Rome, looking for a sign from God in the actions of the people he observes. Meanwhile, back at the Vatican, the shrink is organising the cardinals into teams for games of volleyball. Much more fun is had, this time at the sight of old clerics getting highly competitive. Habemus Papam is a comedy but it’s a film with a serious intent. In a veiled way it’s about the dilemmas facing Pope Benedict XVI – how does an old man go about wrestling with an organisation that needs to change? And more generally it’s about the way human beings get twisted into odd shapes by the structures they inhabit, and how they respond by acting the part they think they’re mean to play – “acting” turns up again and again as an idea in the film, most notably when the pope sits in on the rehearsals of a play while he’s out on walkabout. Intelligent, dramatic and funny, this film got a cooler reception than it warranted partly because it completely ignores the scandals rocking the church, partly because it presents the church as a strange (rather than laughable or corrupt) and therefore usefully countercultural organisation, partly because without changing hardly a thing the film could have been made 40 years ago. It’s a fascinating film, probably the best one there is about the papacy, and its ending (no spoilers here) also turned out to be oddly prophetic.



Why Watch?


  • The great French actor Michel Piccoli, understated as ever
  • Moretti knows where the easy targets are, and avoids them
  • Impeccable set design. Or is that really the Vatican?


© Steve Morrissey 2013



We Have a Pope aka Habemus Papam – at Amazon





Popes on Film

Pope Benedict in Brasil in his red loafers

News that Pope Benedict XVI has decided to hang up the red papal slippers sets the mind a-wandering. Who are the great popes of cinema? Oddly, this is a harder question to answer than you might think. For starters, there are many films that feature a pope at the edge of the action but very very few are actually about a pope. Also, the pope, though held in contempt in some quarters, gets a rather easy ride in the movies, possibly because so many Hollywood films were made by Jewish emigres with first hand experience of what can happen when religion is dragged into the foreground. Either way, popes and knuckle-whitening drama don’t seem to be a natural fit.


So here’s a list of popes on film – chosen for variety, if nothing else.



Habemus Papam (2001, dir: Nanni Moretti)

A detailed and fascinating view of the Catholic Church which weaves footage from John Paul II’s funeral into a story about a newly elected, doubt-plagued pope doing a bunk and going walkabout in Rome. It is not only beautifully acted (by Michel Piccoli) and brilliantly plotted but also hugely under-rated, possibly because Moretti ignored promptings to go for cliches and easy targets.

The Shoes of the Fisherman (1968, dir: Michael Anderson)

A film from the 1960s about the 1980s which asked us to imagine the fantastic proposition of a man from Eastern Europe (Ukraine, in this case) being elected Pope. It happened of course, though the Pole Karel Wojtyla made it to the throne of St Peter as John Paul II in 1978, a little ahead of the faintly similarly named Kiril Lakota (played by Anthony Quinn) in this tortuously plotted if not downright dull biopic with small parts for actors of the calibre of Laurence Olivier and John Gielgud.

Pope Joan (1972, dir: Michael Anderson)

Here’s director Michael Anderson’s follow-up to The Shoes of the Fisherman, another film about a pope, this time the supposedly true story of the woman who dressed up in men’s clothes and ended up being elected pontiff. It’s a bit of a stretch, imagining that anyone could mistake Liv Ullmann for a man, but the plot ignores such problems as it cuts back and forth between the present day and a thousand years ago to present a twin-track drama that manages to bore across the millennium.

The Pope Must Die (1991, dir: Peter Richardson)

An offshoot of Britain’s Comic Strip, a loose collection of comedic talent, this broad, loose and intermittently amusing farce sees the large-boned Robbie Coltrane playing the all too fallible priest accidentally elected to the top job in the Catholic Church. The idea of actually killing the pope, or even suggesting it in the title, was too much in some territories, where this film was renamed The Pope Must Diet. Come on, that’s a good “did you know”.

Only available as a VHS



Becket (1964, dir: Peter Glenville)

A cheeky attempt on my part to shoehorn in one of the outstanding films of the 1960s. The Pope, played here by Paolo Stoppa, does get a walk-on role, but the film is really a smackdown between Peter O’Toole as King Henry II and Richard Burton as Thomas Becket, the “meddlesome priest”. Both actors are at their bellowing, titanic peak and they act out the powerplay between church and state as a kind of gay love story gone a bit skew-whiff. Camp as a hosepipe, entirely mesmerising.


© Steve Morrissey 2013