Thanks to a generous and very timely gift from E (thank you!), yesterday evening I watched Nanni Moretti’s Habemus Papem. Without wishing to give away too much of the plot, a brilliant Michel Piccoli plays a reluctant Pope on a sort of Roman holiday, Vatican-style. Pope Benedict XVI, now retired, said that his 2005 election to the role felt like ‘a guillotine’. The fascinating opening passages of this film display wonderfully well how younger front-runners and favourites among the college of cardinals may be gradually abandoned in favour of the safer choice of the wisdom of age. Certainly, age may bring wisdom but it also brings infirmity. In his statement, Pope Benedict who was 78 when he became Pope and will be 86 in April — said he had come to the certainty “that my strengths, due to an advanced age, are no longer suited to an adequate exercise of the Petrine ministry.” It is a massive job to take on at any age but must seem particularly daunting to somebody nearer to 80 than 70. Listening to Sunday on BBC Radio early this morning I was reminded that, technically, any Catholic male who has reached the age of reason, is not a heretic, is not in schism, and is not “notorious” for simony can be elected pope — there is no other requirement for election. It might even be technically possible for the cardinals to elect a non-Catholic male, if they had reason to believe that he would immediately convert to Catholicism. The election of the pope almost always takes place in the Sistine Chapel, in a “conclave” (so called because the cardinal electors are theoretically locked in, cum clave, until they elect a new pope). Three cardinals are chosen by lot to collect the votes of absent cardinal electors (by reason of illness), three are chosen by lot to count the votes, and three are chosen by lot to review the count of the votes. The ballots are distributed and each cardinal elector writes the name of his choice on it and pledges aloud that he is voting for “one whom under God I think ought to be elected” before folding and depositing his vote on a plate atop a large chalice placed on the altar. The plate is then used to drop the ballot into the chalice, making it difficult for electors to insert multiple ballots. Before being read, the ballots are counted while still folded; if the number of ballots does not match the number of electors, the ballots are burned unopened and a new vote is held. Otherwise, each ballot is read aloud by the presiding Cardinal, who pierces the ballot with a needle and thread, stringing all the ballots together and tying the ends of the thread to ensure accuracy and honesty. Balloting continues until someone is elected by a two-thirds majority. Truly, nobody can know what the result might be. This film addresses a serious theme (the (un)readiness for (un)expected leadership). Moretti does not so much pull his punches as provide a surprisingly affectionate portrait of a venerable institution in one of its periodic leadership changes. My grouse is that sometimes Moretti cannot resist the reductio ad absurdum lure of farce, but I accept that it’s a cultural thing. The Italians love their slapstick (notably, in this case, cardinals playing volleyball and a Swiss guard profiting from a stay in the papal appartments) and are very good at it.