In We Have a Pope, scenes of gently comic melancholy alternate with sequences of gently satirical buffoonery. That these two modes involve high-ranking members of the Vatican—the College of Cardinals and the newly anointed pontiff—both raises the stakes and nullifies its own approach by too often treating these questionably powerful individuals as cute, if slightly foolish men. Far more successful at tracking the disillusionment and depression of the reluctant would-be pope, Melville (Michel Piccoli), as he sneaks out of the Vatican and wanders Rome incognito, than it is in watching the cardinals pass the time in his absence, Nanni Moretti’s latest is a mixed bag that too often settles for easy, superficial laughs.
Actually, both of the two plotlines follow essentially the same strategy: to cast the most powerful members of the Catholic Church in an unlikely light that at once humanizes them and renders their behaviors lightly absurd. In the case of Melville, having shed his frippery, he’s just one more old man wandering the streets of Rome. There’s gentle humor in the non-recognition he receives from his fellow Romans, but there’s also a sense of melancholy in his soul-searching over his inability to fulfill his new, unexpected role. (As we learn in a tour-de-force opening sequence, the logjam in the papal voting had led to the dark-horse candidate Melville carrying the surprise vote.) After Melville flees the Vatican, his travels take him into the company of an acting troupe, allowing him to relive vicariously his younger days as a would-be thespian and allowing Moretti to contrast the pope’s failed youthful dreams with his new unwanted role as an actor in a much grander show. The two forms of pageantry come together, in stirring fashion, as Melville attends a production of a Chekhov play which the red-robed Cardinals dramatically crash to whisk the pontiff home to the Vatican.
Less successful is Moretti’s handling of business back at the Holy See. To avoid alerting both the cardinals and the general public to the pope’s disappearance, the higher-level officials stage their own form of theater in which they give the impression that Melville is confined to his chambers for an extended prayer session and enlist a Vatican employee to occasionally rattle the window shade of his room to indicate a human presence in the papal bedroom. But mostly these scenes are given to time-filling, and Moretti uses them to portray the cardinals in a most un-holy light. From simple card-playing and tranquilizer-taking, they move on to participating in a full-scale volleyball tournament, the sports contest the brainchild of a non-religious psychologist (Moretti himself) brought in to cure the depressed pontiff, but given Melville’s disappearance, left with nothing to do.
While there are some laughs to be had in watching these robed men bat a ball over a net, the sequence both seems to come vaguely out of nowhere and to do little more than suggest that the cardinals are both a tad ridiculous and ultimately lovable. We Have a Pope is a very gentle satire indeed. Only the remerging of the two narratives with the return of Melville to the Vatican and his final, unexpected speech to the thronged masses from his balcony returns the film to form, reigning in the questionable B plot by tying it back to the stronger principal through line. But this is one film whose early narrative suppuration dooms it to the possibility of no more than semi-success, a strategy from which it can never quite recover.