“As nihilism becomes more and more the norm, the symbols of emptiness spread much more terror than those of power do.”
– Ernst Jünger

One nearly misses Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope, 2011) for the reason absent from it. Although the film is the very antithesis of The King’s Speech (Tom Hooper, 2010), which is able to explain abdication only with personal decadence and feebleness, (1) Nanni Moretti doesn’t make fun of religion, Catholicism, or the Vatican. (2) Buñuel’s/Shaw’s sharp nonsense of “Thank God I’m an atheist“ had reduced itself to blunt commonsense long before Ricky Gervais hosting the 2011 Golden Globes used it as an insect glue-board, a bait for the moronism of America. Gratitude, grace transformed into vainglory. In order to evade the convergence of the provokers and the provoked, Moretti creates his own Vatican of cardinals-schoolboys, who had to be born within its walls, otherwise they would have never found their way in (most probably none of them have heard of Opus Dei, let alone had anything to do with it). Seated behind desks they are electing the new Pope as though it were an exam, sneak peeks included. After casting votes their inner voices unite in a prayer: “Not me, Lord, I’m not up to it.”

Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who is sentenced to popedom, is less of an albinotic Leviathan Moby Dick than a piccolo scrivener Bartleby, the inventor of the formula “I would prefer not to.” As Gilles Deleuze puts it: “I would prefer nothing rather than something: not a will to nothingness, but the growth of a nothingness of the will.” Because the film follows the example of Walter Benjamin (3) and rather than on Freud counts on the chemistry of four temperaments and celestial movements/attractions, Habemus Papam is somewhat complementary to Lars von Trier’s Melancholia (2011). Melville is suffering from acedia – the malady of monks, ascetics and Baudelaire –, torpor, apathy. In line with Thomism it could seem like he is neglecting his duties, avoiding decisions, coming dangerously close to the deadly sin of sloth. However, it’s not that he doesn’t feel like it. It’s just that Pascal’s/Kierkegaard’s choice has nothing to do with the procedure of selecting the Secretary of State, the name of the Pope, or the Pontificate coat of arms, which are required of him by the instrumental reason of Vatican spokesman, whose only concern is to carry on with the proceedings as soon and as smoothly as possible, i.e. unclogging the representative machinery and its rotation of mascots.  Theodor Adornowrites in Commitment:

“Interwoven in the veil of personalization is the idea that human beings are in control and decide, not anonymous machinery, and that there is life on the commanding heights of society: Beckett’s moribund grotesques suggest the truth about that.

In Aprile (April, 1998) Moretti declares he is not here to reassure people. Since his earliest films, however, he has had to defend himself before the “commitment committee” (also known as social criticism or political cinema), this legacy of socialist realism sanctioned by the State (4) which – in the most majestic variants – legitimizes itself through Alain Badiou’s claim for univocality. Far from settling for the solution of Sullivan’s Travels (1941) in which Preston Sturges indulged in during WW2, or of Woody Allen’s Stardust Memories (1980), Moretti, in April,oscillates between adocumentary onItalian elections and a musical featuring a Trotskyist confectioner besieged by Stalinists. In the end, he opts for the latter, but during the duration of April he also shoots the former – in style. In Il caimano (The Caiman, 2006) a young female director doing a film about Silvio Berlusconi asks Moretti whether he really thinks it is the right time for making comedies. “It’s always the right time to make a comedy!” he retorts. What to the versed in subversion may appear as lack of radicality is precisely Moretti’s signature. The signature of comedy: mildness that is a continuation of Charlie Chaplin and Jacques Tati, but also of François Truffaut’s gentle descriptions of violent emotions, that functions within the popular, populist forms (of sentiment). Mildness, moderation that lets itself be called names like humanitarian mediocrity, goodness that seems to go beyond the goods and evil, having the power of decommodification. Among the Hyde Park’s prophets-madmen-clowns Moretti proclaims that the model of the Left should be Emilia Romagna – instead of the Soviet Union or Mao’s China –, a region that has the best (5) day-care centres, the best social services, the best hospitals in the world. Calling him a clown (6) is not enough, a taxonomy is called for, if only in order for him to evade it. Moretti acts as a clown violating the code of comedy in circus’ terra incognita: in being constructive, sound. An oxymoron of a clown reformist. Does “the best“ refer to mildness? To what extent can the latter intersect with efficiency? How close does it get to Anton Chekhov’s claim that there’s more love for humanity in steam and electricity than there is in chastity and abstention from meat? And how close to G. K. Chesterton who “with tears of pride” prefers reading train timetables to Byron (or, for that matter, Adolf Eichmann, outside/inside the glass booth, in whom Hannah Arendt sees a clown rather than a monster)?

How much functioning can a clown-artist stomach before he starts to scream? Adorno is not against escapism per se, but one has to know how to flee:

“It is not because they turn their back on washed-out existence that escape films are so repugnant, but because they do not do so energetically enough, because they are themselves just as washed-out, because the satisfactions they fake coincide with the ignominy of reality, of denial.

Pope on the run. Francis Bacon’s remodelled, deformed Velázquez’s Innocent, whose entire body is trying to escape through a screaming mouth, as Deleuze puts it:

“Innocent X screams, but he screams behind the curtain, not only as someone who can no longer be seen, but as someone who cannot see, who has nothing left to see, whose only remaining function is to render visible these invisible forces that are making him scream, these powers of the future.”

The scream is not visible on the face of the one that is supposed to be screaming, but on the faces of others, even more, on something that is not a face: Vatican balcony doors, mouth/head agape, with a curtain fluttering in the wind – like hair. Not emptiness, a wide opening, agápē. Absence made present, the presence of unrepresentability that the fixed idea of a woman psychoanalyst would like to cover up with “parental deficit”. Psychoanalysis of a scream, screaming converted into confessing is hardly recommended by Anti-Oedipus. Nevertheless, it is mandatory to see them facing each other, where else than in the Eternal City, a pastoral stand-off, the Pope versus the psychoanalyst, once upon a time in the West. The flight that follows is not lack of courage, running from responsibility, but flight-as-response. “A schizophrenic out for a walk is a better model than a neurotic lying on the analyst’s couch. A breath of fresh air, a relationship with the outside world.” He flees all over and from Rome, running from the petrification of Peter the Rock. The logic of sensation, the logic of sensationalism: violence of sensation instead of violence of spectacle.

On the (omni)bus Melville is rehearsing, preparing his omnispeech: “We who are fortunate to think we understand things… but recently it’s been hard for the Church to understand things.” Even the TV opinion-maker, coming straight out of Pierre Bourdieu’s analysis of television, after initially throwing out “received ideas”, representations that reinforce representative bodies, that tranquillize, comfort, reassure, and provide cohesion, suddenly gets stuck, left clueless: “As a consequence this leads us… this leads us… No, I’m improvising! The truth is I’m totally confused. I ask the viewers’ forgiveness, forgiveness from all of you.” Hence the psychoanalysts are one of the initiated few that still understand things. (For example: Slovenia’s very own Ljubljana school of psychoanalysis that via Žižek has become a world brand.) The “subject supposed to know”: a king philosopher, the slave of the world. As far as they assume everything, “I think therefore I semanticize”, as far as they encompass the world with their notions, mathemes, diagrams, they also represent it, they are its representatives, sales representatives, insurance representatives etc. False prophecies with a function of diversion. One of the last defenses against the intrusion of the Real. How many Hegelian-Marxist-Maoist-Fauxist-Lacanians can dance on the razor’s edge? None. In a situation of doubt it becomes decisive what one finds particularly dubious.

Melville does not question God, it is the faith in representation/delegating that is under trial. How to represent something that one doesn’t know what it is? He can’t authorize himself as an authority. This is no stage fright tremor, a syndrome of a failed actor, this is tremor, the trembling of the Earth. At any rate, he can’t be the One, since he feels he’s a multitude. He and the mad actor go over all the parts from Chekhov’s The Seagull, including descriptions and directions. What distinguishes the two is the actor’s God complex, or rather, God solipsism. Melville can’t be a Pope, but neither can anyone else for that matter, power cannot be personalized. What’s God got to do with it? If God exists and has anything to do with the selection of Melville, He does not make a mistake, since making mistakes is not in His power; by electing a Pope that renounces popedom, He does not give a leader, but a lead. Abdication does not prevent “great changes”, it triggers them. Anarchía (7) in the middle of Rome. Habemus Papam is an apocalypse, a revelation without fire and brimstone, without hammer and sickle. “A billion” that represents and is at the same time represented, this awaiting billion is petrified. Petrified into Peter the Rock. A billion becomes concrete, it becomes Pope, every man for himself and all men together. As Deleuze and Guattari put it in Kafka:

“The dismantling of the assemblages makes the social representation take flight in a much more effective way than a critique would have done and brings about a deterritorialization of the world that is itself political and that has nothing to do with an activity of intimacy.”

What comes after petrification? Where is the headless billion – and the minority flight as its cause – headed? What sort of a becoming is this composition (8) of chaos, what sets it apart from panic or despair? If anything can/has to follow, it definitely shouldn’t be a follow-up. In any case, nothing that could be seen on Berlusconi TV – as shown in Federico Fellini’s Ginger e Fred (Ginger and Fred, 1986) and described by Serge Daney – or labelled as a mere episode: 30 seconds of newsréel, thirty seconds over Rome, three times ten seconds of Innocent that fly by fast, too fast, fly by as if they never were.

This article was originally published in the Slovenian film magazine Ekran in May 2012. 


  1. The opposite of the two being the ability to recite a text, the ghost writer of which is supposed to be the Weltgeist itself. Stuttering has to articulate, sacrifice itself as burnt offering, so that it could become a motivational/mobilizing speech. The nation enthusiastically supports the king who with the help of a speech therapist/amateur psychoanalyst in the end manages to do something that is expected of every little schoolboy. People’s paternal feeling of pity in line with Franz Kafka’s story Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk.
  2. Just like he wasn’t doing it in his earlier film La messa è finita (The Mass is Ended, 1985).
  3. For more on that see Susan Sontag’s introduction to Benjamin’s One-Way Street and Other Writings.
  4. A very official category deciding on beneficiaries of subsidies, grants, awards etc.: Zhdanov coefficient.
  5. Moretti is constantly using the terminology of “the best” more in the sense of sports enthusiasm than market value. There is the best psychoanalyst, and second-best psychoanalyst, the best dermatologist, the best film director…
  6. Even in the case of the “Borat of philosophy” Slavoj Žižek.
  7. Habemus Papam could also be read as an introduction to Christian anarchism.
  8. In accordance with his distinction between figurative and figural Jean-François Lyotard writes in Adorno as the Devil: “To cease composing in politics is to cease conserving in absentia the idea of the totality, the military, industrial, clerical organization which represents totality, to cease constructing a ‘party’. In place of the politica ficta-fingens, a politica figura. What can an affirmative politics be, which does not look for support in a representative (a party) of the negative, etc.? That is the question left, abandoned by Adorno.”