Suitable entertainment for a Knights of Columbus fundraiser, Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope finds the most holy father, wracked with self-doubt about his new position, on a walkabout in Rome. Back at the Vatican, the cuddly cardinals who await his return square off in a round-robin volleyball tournament. The original Latin title of Moretti's tragicomedy, a soft sendup of the Catholic Church, is Habemus Papam. The am in the second word should be chopped off.
Actor-writer-director Moretti, a darling of Cannes, where We Have a Pope premiered last May (and where he will serve as president of the jury next month), has often been referred to as the "Italian Woody Allen"; in his earlier works, such as Caro Diario (1993), he turned the camera on himself and his foibles. Here, as in his previous film, The Caiman (2006), which took aim at Silvio Berlusconi, he attempts to scrutinize the oddities of all-powerful leaders and institutions. More pointed than We Have a Pope, The Caiman failed as a pungent satire, its supposed jabs at the former prime minister overshadowed by its dominant, wearying marital melodrama until the film's biting final scene. Moretti's latest follows a similar arc: It begins with broad physical comedy (a cardinal face-plants in the dark), introduces a potentially provocative idea — has the pope lost his faith? If so, why? — then stupefyingly pulls its punches until the closing minutes, when the film acknowledges, in powerful but nonspecific terms, the staggering, appalling crises facing the Catholic Church. "I preferred not to allow myself to be conditioned by current affairs," Moretti, who was raised Catholic but is now "not a believer," says in the press notes. "It is a made-up story: My film is about my Vatican, my conclave, my cardinals."
The director needn't have checklisted the unspeakable acts covered up by the church or its hubris, but to so willfully ignore them is pure naive folly. In the director's fairy tale, facile metaphors — the pope as performer, the Vatican as theater — serve as the feeblest of commentary. Moretti plays, in his typically overweening fashion, renowned psychoanalyst Bruzzi, summoned to aid the newly elected pontiff, Melville (Michel Piccoli), who screams, "I can't do this!" right before he is to approach the balcony of the Vatican to greet his flock. Trying to determine the cause of his analysand's profound panic attack, the atheist shrink makes little progress in his first and only session with Melville, played for laughs: Their meeting is observed by all members of the conclave, and nearly every topic (dreams, unfulfilled fantasies, "parental deficit") is nixed by the Vatican spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr). To better treat the reluctant pope's paralysis, it is decided that he should leave the Holy City to seek treatment with Bruzzi's ex-wife (Margherita Buy), also a psychoanalyst — who, like everyone else outside the conclave, is unaware that Melville is the newly elected pontiff.
Wondering whether his breakdown is a kind of "psychological sinusitis," Melville tells Bruzzi's ex, when she asks him what he does for a living, that he is a "an actor in the theater." He becomes one of a sort after fleeing his handlers. Mingling with civilians in the Italian capital, Melville soon ingratiates himself with a troupe rehearsing Chekhov's The Seagull. Talking to himself on a city bus during his three-day absence from the Vatican, he strings together some thoughts about the church: "It's been hard to admit our faults." This mildest of barbs against the Catholic hierarchy is cushioned further by the reactions of the pope's fellow travelers, who look kindly at the sweet, sympathetic, frail old man.
Through his stature as one of Europe's most veteran actors, Piccoli, now 86, brings a certain welcome gravitas to Moretti's film. But until the potent concluding scene, the humor and shallow profundities of We Have a Pope pivot on the cuteness of geriatrics, especially when they're spiking a volleyball in slo-mo.