Earlier this year, I saw Zero Dark Thirty, a film about the hunt for Osama Bin Laden.
I was struck by how much suspense could be generated by an event for which the outcome is completely without mystery.
I felt the same way last night in St. Peter's Square. The only safe bet about this wide-open conclave was that we would see black smoke on the first vote. And yet, among the thousands huddled together on a rainy Roman night, there was a palpable buzz and a breathtaking pause as the smoke began to pour from the chimney.
The chimney is a tiny protrusion on top of the Sistine Chapel that from a distance looks like a flat-head nail that has been driven into the roof, and even with a light on the chimney for the sake of the positioned cameras you had to wonder if we'd be able to discern white smoke from black (a locally famous problem with the vote that swept Cardinal Ratzinger into the papacy eight years ago), but while the first puff or two was difficult to read, it was soon billowing in the kind of black smoke that filled the Harry Potter movies.
The cardinals are sworn to secrecy, of course, and secrecy is a terribly important part of the process. (Even as they're voting, the cardinals are asked to disguise their handwriting on their ballots.) But wouldn't you love to know what's happening inside?
We only know that no one has yet amassed the 77 votes necessary for the two thirds majority.
It could mean that right now there are many cardinals receiving votes (which would mean a process that is a long way from finding its groove) -- or it could mean that one cardinal is just under the threshold and is already becoming the presumed pope.
But each puff of smoke from here on out takes us further and further from a known ending and into the real suspense of the unknown.