Following a string of mordant themes, Nanni Moretti turns to gentle comedic stylings with the artistically and doctrinally conservative “We Have a Pope.” The original-language title, referring to the words spoken to announce a new pontiff, reps the sole irony in this uneven tale of a cardinal (played with consummate brilliance as usual by Michel Piccoli) who fears the papal tiara. There are only so many yuks Moretti can milk from the sight of old men in clerical robes, and the film’s toothlessness makes it unlikely for arthouse crowds to anoint a work that shouldn’t offend Opus Dei.
Euro play will gain traction from “Pope’s” Cannes competish berth, and Italo biz was strong on its opening weekend, but the helmer’s resumption of his Woody Allen-like mantle appears designed for a conventional older crowd. The biggest sin here isn’t the cutesy, unoriginal take on the upper echelons of clerical life, but rather an inability to balance mildly amusing scenes, which seem tailored for a jokey trailer, with the anguish of a man unprepared for the responsibility of ascending St. Peter’s throne. The results veer between occasional smiles and outright pretension, with only Piccoli’s mastery transcending the material.
The College of Cardinals is sequestered in the Sistine Chapel (expertly reproduced at Cinecitta) to elect a pope. Following a few inconclusive votes, they appoint Cardinal Melville (Piccoli), who is overwhelmed with humility. As the world anxiously awaits, the prelates gather to announce “Habemus Papam” from the balcony of St. Peter’s, but when the words are proclaimed, Melville screams and rushes away. Stupefied, the cardinals withdraw without declaring the name of the new pope.
Technically, Melville is the pontiff, but until he agrees to be publicly proclaimed, his identity can’t be revealed. The curia is thrown into a tizzy, especially the Vatican spokesman (an excellent Jerzy Stuhr). The cardinals remain sequestered, and a shrink (Moretti) is summoned to find out if the pope is mentally stable. The psychiatric session, conducted before the assembled cardinals and severely circumscribed, reps the funniest scene, yet the script doesn’t know where to take it, and Moretti’s character becomes as aimless as the film itself.
Through a not-terribly-believable narrative somersault, the spokesman takes the pope incognito to the shrink’s estranged wife (Margherita Buy), also an analyst. Following a farcical encounter, Melville deliberately loses his handlers and wanders the streets of Rome , finding inspiration from bus passengers, a parish priest (Salvatore Miscio), and a troupe of actors performing Chekhov’s “The Seagull,” all of whom help him formulate thoughts on the weight thrust upon him.
Timing works for and against “We Have a Pope”: John Paul II’s upcoming beatification means traditionalists are ready for a light-hearted pro-Church film they can embrace, but recent scandals have left such sourness that many will expect the man who made “The Caiman” to inject a note of pointed commentary. They will be sadly disappointed: What they get instead are scenes of cardinals playing volleyball. The clerical fashion show in “Fellini’s Roma” conveyed a biting absurdity that Moretti’s film can’t begin to touch.
Nor does the film have the profundity of the recent “Of Gods and Men,” which explored faith in ways both respectful and deeply moving. Here, the uncertain pope’s inner turmoil makes for engrossing moments, yet they’re sabotaged by the helmer’s apparent need to find humor in the thought of a cardinal wanting a good cappuccino. By the hour mark, the film already feels overextended, and then it leaps into pretentious territory with an overly staged scene in a theater, followed by a finale dwarfed by the intensity of Arvo Part’s “Miserere.”
Thankfully, Piccoli makes it worthwhile, and thesps and acting coaches could do no better than study the way he conveys humility, intelligence, fear and innocent pleasure with the merest of eye movements. Casting is flawless throughout, from Stuhr and his marvelous rubbery face, as controlled as that of a silent film comedian, to the multinational extras making up the believable curia.
Alessandro Pesci’s lensing is attractive, calling attention to itself only when quietly conveying an emotion, such as slow zooms of the pope alone in the Sistine Chapel, though slow-mo during the volleyball scene is pointless. The f/x team does an excellent job inserting real Vatican background shots, and the set designers and location scouts are to be commended for impressive research.