Pope Benedict XVI made no secret that the papal office came as a heavy burden to him—as a cross to be carried. Indeed, as Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger, he had repeatedly tried to retire from his previous post as head of the Vatican office for overseeing church doctrine, but Pope John Paul II always refused his resignation. When his predecessor died in 2005, Ratzinger hoped to retire after the papal conclave. During the conclave, when the votes began to go his way, the cardinal—by nature a shy and retiring academic—began to pray, "Please don't do this to me."
That unheeded prayer is echoed by practically the entire college of cardinals in the papal conclave in the opening of Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope, or Habemus Papam. (The title refers to the traditional Latin phrase with which the new pope's election is proclaimed from the central balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, where the pope makes his first appearance and gives his first Urbi et Orbi blessing to the world.)
Moretti gives us closeups on one cardinal after another, their inner pleadings in voiceover, until the camera pulls back as a clamor of recusant prayers ascends to heaven: Non io, Signore … Not me, I pray thee … No, Señor. This mildly amusing but ham-fisted sequence is typical of the film's sensibilities, for good and for ill—more the latter than the former, alas.
In a way it's like the antithesis of a Dan Brown novel. Brown's stories peer with feverish, lurid imagination at the inner workings of the Catholic hierarchy, discovering all manner of ridiculous subterfuge, ruthlessness, and skulduggery. Moretti's film hardly peers at all. It's good-natured and inoffensive, regarding the cardinals with gentle amusement. But there's no complexity or ambiguity, no depth or insight.
There are no ambitious cardinals angling for the Petrine office. No charismatic natural leaders (like Karol Wojtyla, who became John Paul II), ready and willing to serve as God wills. No conflicted candidates struggling to resign themselves to whatever cross God might wish them bear, as Cardinal Ratzinger took up his cross. Not even any confirmed non-contenders who aren't worried because they aren't in the running—aren't papabile or pope material. (By the way, if you thought the term was preferiti, you've been reading too much Dan Brown.)
Nothing differentiates any of the cardinals from the others, and when the vote falls to a surprise candidate, one Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), there's no interest in why the votes went his way. Asked if he accepts the election, the stunned cardinal stammers out the expected response. Yet later—just after the Habemus Papam proclamation, but before his name has been announced to the world—Melville suffers a panic attack and flees, leaving the cardinal protodeacon hanging on the balcony before the world. Awkward.
It's impossible not to feel empathy for the plight of the hapless cardinal catapulted into a position of incalculable responsibility for which he feels wholly inadequate. Yet as his initial panic fades and his paralysis stretches to minutes, hours, days and weeks, it becomes equally impossible not to feel increasingly frustrated with the new pope's apparent lack of empathy for the plight into which his mulish immobility has plunged his colleagues, the throngs of pilgrims stranded in St. Peter's Square, and the entire Catholic world.