Habemus Papam


Habemus Papam, latin for “We have a Pope” is Nanni Moretti’s last work and my first encounter with his.
It opens on an atmosphere of expectation appropriately registered in the grandeur of wide-angles. With this kind of movies the frame of discussion is delicate, not because the subject matter is inaccessible, but because of the context it carries, and all the symbolism it is laden with, tinting each person’s perspective in significantly varying manners.
Having said that, the scene that follows the procession of the marching cardinals admonishing, to a succession of saints’ names, to “pray for us”is quite funny and disturbing to me. I hope the comical part is universally shared, though it is the apparent futility of such recitals, that presages the succeeding events.
This extended scene of the cardinals in procession to the Conclave to elect the Pope is splendidly cinematographic; it is one of those techniques that perfectly befits movies. To assist to this “Saint X, pray for us”for one minute,  and then as an alternating echo fading in and out over a journalist’s commentary for around 4 minutes, is captivating and I hope would not elicit a “fhemna” or “uff” from my fellow compadres. I love such long, focused, sequences (wish I knew the technical term); though they do appear extended, in fact they feel compact, for they carry a lot; those static images compel us to think and ask questions in a matter of minutes, that, in a novel for instance, would require hundreds of pages and digressions, and so, I hope to see more of them in current films.
As anyone who was brought up in the Christian faith or in a Christian environment, at one point, we have certainly asked ourselves the purpose of such repetitions. For the annoyingly inquisitive, I am almost certain, such questions induce some skepticism. There are quite a few esoteric numbers in the Christian faith: 3, for obvious reasons, 5 (on average) the number of times one must repeat “Our Father” and “Ave Maria”after repenting, 7, the number of Churches one must visit on the Thursday of the Holy Week, 9, the Neuvaine, and, last, 10 times reciting “Ave Maria” for one part of the Rosary (imagine that a full one will require 50 “Ave Maria”!).
What adds humor to this scene, though it could pass unnoticed, is when the orator recites: “All the saints and the prophets”and the procession to echo in unison: “pray for us”and then the saints’ names are recited again! This is typical in a Catholic or a Catholic-affiliated mass or ceremony.
This persistence in prayer bothers me; it is a material ritualization of an abstraction. It solidifies a parasitic relation between an earthly institution and its mortal members; and I insist on this term, mortal, for the Church, in turning the faithfuls to parroting machinists, cares only about their mortal facet.
Why would a faithful incessantly, monotonously, and meaninglessly recite to a Creator whom the Church teaches is all ears and love for His creation? Why would a faithful invoke so many mediators, when the faithful has an open line with the Creator?
Should a Christian, or more precisely, a Catholic, go back to the Source, the Scriptures, one need only pray “Our Father”and that is it. It is clearly stated.
This interminable repetitiveness from a mass of people to the cries of an orator confirms a cultural colonialism Christendom is responsible of; it clearly reflects the pagan infiltrations to the Christian prayers, turned rituals, that helped spread the new religion, increase its base, establish a hierarchy, thereby metamorphosing what should have been a metaphysical religion into an earthly institution.  As such, it is not without intent that the opening scenes of the film unfold to a succession of wide-angle shots of the Vatican and the Conclave.
To conclude, I go back to the movie, to which I’m grateful for this digression in thought, without it being restricted to the initiated, “Habemus Papam” has its own twists,  is rich in symbolism (I think of the elected Pope in the train), does not take the cheap turn of parody or irony, and delivers a powerful message, accentuated, in my opinion, before the end credits.

5 thoughts on “Habemus Papam

  1. Hi! Found you through BabblingBooks. I’ve been reading through all the reviews of this page. Very interesting. I assume you read French. Impressive. I am trying to read French. I’ve started with the Bible. I first read a chapter in English then in French. It helps.
    I found what you said in this last review about the Catholic Church especially profound. I never thought about rituals turning a metaphysical experience into an earthly institution.
    Still, God gave the Jews natural symbols and rituals in order to connect them to Him. Since we are material I think there is a need for the visible to enable us to understand the invisible.


  2. Hi Sharon! Thank you for passing by and for taking the time to read my blog posts. I do read French, yes. In Lebanon, where I live, we usually study Arabic, French and now English is becoming popular because of the universities adopting English as a teaching language. I love it when I know people are attempting to learn French; it is such an elegant and musical language (imho).
    I agree with you, symbols and rituals are needed to make a Deity or any abstract idea comprehensible to us. However, I always ask myself when does one draw the line? I grew up in a Christian environment in Lebanon where strictly-followed rituals create obstacles to peoples’ beliefs rather than moving them forward. Connected to rituals, is this repetition of prayers, that at one point you ask yourself what added value does it give a believer if s/he says Pater Noster, for example, 5 times? I personally would be very interested to learn how early Jews and early Christians were praying and “talking” to God, and how much “ornamentation” and “indoctrination” was added by religious institutions over the years.
    In the end, I wish you a Prosperous and Intellectual New Year!


    • Nino: How interesting. My parents visited Lebanon years ago and in fact, I was born in Turkey (my dad was in the US Air Force).

      I agree with you that there is a line to be drawn between empty ritual or “vain repetitions” that people engage in as opposed to actively engaged worship. To me the former’s motivation is more to “earn” salvation rather than sincere communication with God.

      I, myself, am not Catholic so was never taught memorized prayers (other than the Lord’s Prayer).

      I was really expressing my own recently developed interest in the worship traditions and rituals of the Old Testament Jews and how they foreshadowed the coming of Jesus Christ.

      I have been reading a series of books about the history of the Christian church. Like you, I am fascinated to gain an understanding as to how Christians started out worshiping in caves and at risk of persecution at the height of the Caesar cult to the Medieval ages where few people read the Bible and were told what to believe-thus paving the way for the Reformation.

      At the risk of sounding judgmental I think in many ways the Roman Catholic church became the “Judaizers” talked of in the New Testament, wanting everyone to revert to the law for salvation.

      I look forward to reading future reviews from you. May you also have a blessed and safe year.


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