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The film We Have a Pope and the importance of humility

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A gently comedic, satirical look at the importance of humility...

Michel Piccoli stars in the film 'We Have a Pope' (2011), which illustrates the importance of humility

At this point, pretty much everybody has heard the big recent news. No, not the fact that Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, and Carrie Fisher are returning as Luke, Han, and Leia for Star Wars Episode VII, but Pope Benedict XVI announcing his resignation – the first time a Pope has resigned since 1415 – and his successor being announced: Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio, or Pope Francis, as he will be known.

In light of this, let's take a look at the film We Have a Pope (aka Habemus Papam), which, fittingly, not only concerns similar (if fictional) events, but also puts forth the theme of humility.

Whatever your religious views (or otherwise) may be, and whatever you may think of either Pope, the outgoing Pope's official statement (and in fact, the resignation itself) shows humility. To quote a few relevant parts of it:

"...both strength of mind and body are necessary, strength which in the last few months, has deteriorated in me to the extent that I have had to recognize my incapacity to adequately fulfill the ministry entrusted to me."

"Dear Brothers, I thank you most sincerely for all the love and work with which you have supported me in my ministry and I ask pardon for all my defects."

"And now, let us entrust the Holy Church to the care of Our Supreme Pastor, Our Lord Jesus Christ..."

Now, onto the film We Have a Pope.

Director, producer, co-writer, and supporting actor Nanni Moretti's film concerns a Pope (Michel Piccoli) who, upon being elected to the office, gets nervous and refuses to give an inaugural speech. This is almost unheard of, so the conclave of cardinals worries about what to do as the world watches, and a psychoanalyst (played by Moretti) is brought in to try and figure out what the problem is.

While the specific causes of the problem are left unidentified, it's essentially a matter of the Pope feeling like he's not up to the job, and accordingly, a low-key study in humility follows. This applies not only to the character of the Pope himself, but also the ripples of his actions (or inaction) flow outwards and have an effect on others. In a sense, the Pope's humility serves as a (limited) form of leadership, by setting others an example to follow, whether or not he realises this himself.

Realising that they don't know what to do when things don't follow the script they're expecting, many of the other characters are forced to confront their own failings and inadequacies, resulting in a newfound recognition of humility.

J.J. Abrams' directorial advice of "Pretend you know what you're doing" doesn't work here...

Poster for 'We Have a Pope' (2011), aka 'Habemus Papam' (2011)The character of the Pope in the film is not really fleshed out, which seems kind of weird, since he's the main character. Though perhaps the point is that the specific reasons for him not feeling up to the job don’t matter; the point is that he recognises that he’s not up to it; and thus, the story is universal.

In a mildly humorous opening to the film, during the process of the conclave voting for the previous Pope's successor, it's revealed that none of the cardinals actually wants to be Pope. For instance, there's no-one singing "I Just Can’t Wait To Be Pope". This isn’t a remake of The Lion King set among the hierarchy of the Catholic Church. (Though Sister Act was a great musical about nuns. And Sister Act II, for that matter. Not to mention The Sound of Music.)

The film portrays most of its characters in a largely sympathetic light. For instance, the cardinals are human and flawed, though their flaws are seen mostly as comedic foibles. The film is very gentle, which in some ways is a good thing. Perhaps, though, the film could have been a little more satirical; not just of the Catholic Church as an institution, but also of humanity in general.

However, to its credit, the film is incisive enough to recognise people's moral failings, at least to an extent. (Perhaps these points could have been emphasised more, or expanded upon, though they're in keeping with the film's general approach of understatement. At any rate, the recognition of human moral fallibility is there, though only a little.)

For instance, there's a scene of children fighting with each other, perhaps illustrating the idea that people are naturally sinful. The Pope (albeit incognito) then admits that when he was little, he used to hit girls too.

Also, at another point in the film, a man raises his voice and rants at someone over the phone.

(These examples bring to mind parallels with Terrence Malick's The Tree of Life, though that film probably illustrated this point better, as well as alluding to many other ideas. It's a lot more complex and ambitious than the deliberately simpler, more matter-of-fact We Have a Pope, but worthwhile if you can get into it.)

In another scene, the Vatican spokesman swears when annoyed, and another time he almost swears, then corrects himself. As well as serving as a comedic juxtaposition with societal expectations of the role, this also helps to illustrate the universality of human moral imperfection.

In a similarly comedic way, a reporter in a different scene subtly changes the emphasis to make the press look slightly better.

Elsewhere in the film, the Vatican spokesman and another guy on TV say sorry and ask for people’s forgiveness, because they pretended to know what they were doing, but really didn't. The situation prompts these people also to discover humility, which is a very good thing.

When the Pope absents himself from the Vatican (to walk among the common people, with the pressure off), a guard is ordered to take his place, just so that people can see a figure through the window of the Pope's chambers, as a placeholder. The guard displays pride (which is in fact the opposite of humility), living it up in the Pope’s apartments and generally having a lot of fun with playing the part. In keeping with the tone of much of the rest of the film, it's played for laughs. While entertaining, perhaps this slightly underplays the insidious nature of pride; especially since it's meant to be presented as a counterpoint to humility, which is the very point of the film.

The conclave’s deliberations are always secret, preserving the illusion that the cardinals are somehow removed from ordinary people, possessing special wisdom or insight. However, as the film shows, they’re just as human as the rest of us. The Pope’s humility is about admitting this.

The film is primarily about humility before others. But while this is very important, what’s arguably even more important is humility before God. A similar thing is true of the film Get Low, starring Robert Duvall and Bill Murray (in a largely dramatic role). Nevertheless, in relation to humility before God, a key supporting role in that film is that of a preacher who tells the main character, “Forgiveness is free. But you have to ask for it.”

There’s a scene in We Have a Pope where one of the cardinals tries to discuss theology with the psychoanalyst, but the volleyball tournament that the latter is organising keeps interrupting. The scene may be slightly amusing, but it also (perhaps unwittingly) underscores humanity’s tendency to get diverted from talking and thinking about what’s really important.

As humans, we're often too distracted by our games of volleyball (which can be good in themselves) from addressing the bigger, more important questions.

The film effectively establishes the importance of humility, but largely fails to move on from there. Humility is the first step, but what matters is how we proceed from there. There are hints of this, such as a brief scene where a priest emphasises the importance of something like (quoted from memory), “…recognising that we can’t do it on our own, that we need God’s forgiveness.” This is interesting, but the film hardly expands on this.

Humility is about acknowledging that you don't have all the answers, that you're not perfect, that you can't do it yourself, that you need help.

(This point is also made very effectively by Danny Boyle's more cinematically audacious film 127 Hours, starring James Franco as the real-life climber Aaron Ralston, who goes through a dramatic character arc due to, while, and because of his arm getting trapped by a rock, and being left alone without anyone to help.)

Humility's not about saying there are no answers, or that we can't know them. Humility's about looking outside yourself for the answers; to someone bigger, higher, greater.

Humility isn’t just about accepting our pragmatic limitations, but rather having a true and accurate view of ourselves. Among other things, this can be morally speaking.

Humility is relational. It's about relationship with others, and about relationship with God. We could probably all benefit from being more humble in our relationships, as We Have a Pope, and the recent papal resignation for that matter, shows.

You can watch the trailer for We Have a Pope here:


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