Monday, July 16, 2012

We Have a Pope


The first mistake of Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope may have been its decision to turn the College of Cardinals into something more akin to a seminary summer camp. How successful can a satire be when populated by such an innocuous bunch of clowns? A gaggle of grey-haired sorority sisters, the Cardinals caper about with a giggly, carefree air (it’s a wonder we don’t see them braiding each other’s hair while reading out Cosmo quizzes, although perhaps that’s too flippant for Moretti’s mildly impudent worldview). Dreamy and dumbstruck, they lean on the balustrade and stare up at the shuttered windows of their absent leader, mooning away like a group of teenage girls with pictures of Justin Bieber on their bedroom ceilings. And where is the pope? He’s hiding from the burden of his duties, roaming the Roman streets as he ponders what his psychiatrist could have meant when she told him he had a “parental deficit.” (Hint: look in the mirror, padre.)

So the pope rejects his role and the film its better instincts; an idea that surely sounded promising on the page takes on the form of its doddering, gutless subjects. What comedy there is to be found here suffers from the disjointed tone and lousy timing—too slow for farce, too quick for deadpan—which leaves the gags to fizzle out in the musty, tomb-like atmosphere cultivated by Moretti. Mostly, the film limps by with mild irreverence its only sustaining crutch. The director seems altogether too pleased with his boldness in showing the powerful inner circle of the Catholic church playing volleyball and whining about espresso (easy on the froth, by the way). Rather than tackle the fraught subject of Catholicism in the 21st century head-on, Moretti opts for the mushy middle-road. He inadvertently pays respect to the rituals of the church even as his blithe depiction of the institution argues that all of this is of little consequence. The film achieves its greatest subversion in its own irrelevance.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Bernie


With its serene perversity, Richard Linklater’s Bernie could easily be taken for the modern-day equivalent of Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Admittedly, the comedy of Chaplin’s film is several shades blacker—save for that flash of righteous moralizing near the end—but both films balance an almost na├»ve sweetness with a pitiless glimpse into the void. Bernie’s final mincing jailhouse walk even evokes the famous closing shot of Chaplin’s film, where his bluebeard killer totters forth like the Tramp. But beyond such surprising synchronicities, there is also the sense that both of these killers are the true lovers of their victims, their violence not a contradiction of that love but an extension of it. Mrs. Nugent, the blackhearted widow who is the first and only victim of Bernie Tiede, offers no shortage of motives to an eager killer, from her controlling ways to her casual cruelties. Surely only someone who cared so deeply for the old woman could kill her for the simple fact she chews her food too much.

But Linklater’s film is also a tricky beast of its own breed, and its portrait of small-town life is no less pointed for its fond familiarity with the setting. The citizens of Catharge, Texas—the location of the real-life crime that inspired the film—appear as a kind of gossiper’s chorus, providing colour commentary on the murder trial and rising to Bernie’s defence. Real people speaking scripted lines, they create a disjunction between fact and fiction more disturbing than any of the film’s dark comedy (the appearance of Jack Black and Bernie Tiede himself together during the credits even provoked gasps from several audience members). Of course, the film is all about disjunction: the truth is that Bernie killed someone, but the truth is also that he is a good man. How do you reconcile that? It’s a strange morality that damns a woman for not going to church yet forgives a man for stuffing her corpse in a freezer, but Linklater approaches these contradictions without judgement or disdain. His depiction of small-town life is as openhearted and brutal as Bernie himself—faithful love, and four shots in the back.