By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood April 3, 2012 at 2:17PM
With "We Have a Pope" (April 6), top Italian writer-actor-director Nanni Moretti takes us behind the scenes of a place that we are forbidden to enter, not unlike "The Queen" or "The King's Speech." He imagines what happens when a Vatican cardinal finds out that he's elected as the Catholic Church's supreme religious leader. He panics.
Great French actor Michel Piccolli plays this Pope. And typically, humorist Moretti, often known as the Italian Woody Allen because he appears in his own movies, is in the mix as a top psychiatrist (and Atheist, of course) sent in to counsel the reluctant new Pope. (Early reviews out of Cannes were mixed.)
I love such Moretti classics as "Dear Diary" and the dramatic heart-tugger "The Son's Room." All of his movies are smart and well-made; but this one starts out funny and then loses its way; I wanted even more confrontational dialogue between the Pope and his shrink. Hearing the Pope spout psychobabble about separating from his mother is hilarious. Cannes Competition regular Moretti and I spoke last May on a Cannes hotel terrace with an interpreter. This year Morreti will head the Cannes jury. (Snippets of video and the trailer are below.)
Anne Thompson: I didn't know whether you were going to be very serious or very funny, as your movies can go either way. It turns out to be a little bit of both?
Nanni Moretti: It's not a program I have in my head, it's natural for me to have these two aspects living together in a movie.
AT: When I talked to Stephen Frears about "The Queen," he mentioned a line that he could not cross, as he was portraying a rarified secret place where no one knows what goes on--much like the inner sanctum of the Vatican, where you could make anything up, although you clearly did a lot of research.
NM: Well I didn't have this feeling. I told the story I wanted to tell freely. I invented my own Conclave, my own Vatican, my own cardinals, and I went through that secret line. I filled a secret place with my images, the images I invent.
AT: You wanted to show what happens during the transition from a real man and human being into the Pope?
NM: Well yes, because actually it's the way it happens. One minute before you're a normal human being and all of a sudden you become God on Earth, which is something really shocking, you're supposed to be able to speak to everybody and represent mankind. It's a surreal special crazy moment in the life of a human being. And I wanted to show this specific moment and the panic and the anguish that is created by this moment. I heard many witnesses say that many popes felt this feeling of panic and not feeling fit for the role when they were elected. Even the last one admitted that he had this feeling. He panicked, and you must believe it, he says so!
AT: Did dealing with the Vatican, a subject that is so fraught, especially in Rome, cause you to pull back from criticizing the Catholic Church?
NM: No. It's not that I had censorship. I was just not interested in that. I know like everyone else all the problems of the Church, the scandals, not spiritual things. That was the film people were expecting from me, not the film I wanted to do.
AT: I wanted a bit more of the Pope in crisis talking to your psychiatrist.
NM: It would have been a more conceptual film based on dialogue, it would have been a totally different movie.
AT: Are you a believer, an ardent Catholic?
NM: When I was a boy, but in the last 40 years, no.
AT: How do you feel about being compared to Woody Allen?
NM: Well, as far as the movies are concerned, I don't know. As far as the method is concerned, when I make a movie it takes me five years, and he makes a movie every year.
AT: That's why your movies sometimes turn out better than his. I wish he took more time, I really do.
NM: I think that probably what he likes most, and that's why he's so quick about it, is the writing. And the rest for him is almost a formality. Because I have this feeling that he doesn't give that much importance to anything that is not involved in the writing, the shooting, at least in the last years. Even if most of the time he knows how to choose his actors. He has very good performances in his movies.
AT: Actors all want to work with him; they bring his films to life.
NM: For me it's a mystery how he manages to do this. He's his own author, not taking other people's scripts.
AT: Aren't you the same?
NM: It takes me five years!
AT: So the writing process is difficult for you?
NM: Now, yes it's hard. When I was younger I found it easier. Maybe because I wasn't so critical of myself. Right now the shooting part is the most difficult and tiring and gives me more anxiety.
AT: Are you free inside the world of Italian cinema to do whatever you want?
NM: Yes I am free, because my movies usually are successes and make money. If I were a beginner, I could not spend as much money on my movies as I do now and I probably could never have made a movie about Berlusconi [he played the politician/media mogul in 2006's Il Caimano]. Thing is, when there is not much money in the market, a crisis, and you can't afford to get enough money to make your movie, what you should do is find the right idea to do for less money, and find the right range of budget.
AT: This movie looks pretty expensive though, how much was it?
NM: 9 million Euros.
AT: Do you have many ideas in a drawer and you choose the one that speaks to you most forcefully, or do you have trouble coming up with ideas?
NM: It's also because I do many other things in the cinema: I produce, I have my own [movie] theater in Rome, I was director up until two years ago of the Torino Film Festival, I have my own distribution company, of course it takes time too. Now I have a couple of ideas, but I haven't decided whether to work on both and see which one convinces me the most, or go to one and work on it from the beginning.