I'll say this much about Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti's latest film, We Have a Pope: It doesn't goes where one might expect it to go based on its first act. When a newly elected pope, Melville (Michel Piccoli), develops cold feet over his daunting new position, his public-relations spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) brings in a psychoanalyst, Bruzzi (Moretti), to try to help calm his nerves. One might expect this to turn into a cutesy comedy about a pope and his shrink, with occasional digs at the Vatican's sheltered existence to add some variety. But that's not what transpires in We Have a Pope—not in the slightest. Instead, during a sequence in which the spokesman sneaks Melville out to see the psychoanalyst's estranged wife (Margherita Buy), Melville escapes and ends up wandering the streets in an existential fog, leaving the spokesman to try to alleviate the worries of the other cardinals—as well as the virtually imprisoned psychoanalyst—by constructing elaborate ruses to convince them that Melville is, in fact, still hanging around in his room.
As Melville wanders around town, and as the confused cardinals and psychoanalyst try to pass the time waiting for him to emerge from apocryphal hiding, We Have a Pope develops an aimlessness that rather undercuts the emotional impact its payoff is meant to have. Yet, even if Moretti's film doesn't wholly satisfy, its more amusing individual scenes and more intriguing thematic threads come through with just enough clarity to make it still worthy of serious consideration.
Within the opening 10 minutes of the film, one can get a sense of what Moretti is interested in pursuing thematically. After the death of the current pope, all the cardinals of the world gather together in Vatican City in a public procession that, with the help of an Italian news media breathlessly covering the pomp and circumstance, builds anticipation for the behind-closed-doors vote to come. Behind those closed doors, however, we see the popes for the (rather selfish) human beings they are—a perception Moretti emphasizes with an escalating symphony of voiceovers in which we hear all of the cardinals' thoughts, all of them basically thinking the same thought: how none of them want to be the new pope. Broadly speaking, We Have a Pope toys, in lightly comic fashion, with the contrast between the dignified public image of the papacy versus the more mundane realities. The institution of the Vatican, meanwhile, is painted as a business like any other, complete with its own PR man in charge of maintaining its squeaky-clean image.
With Melville, Moretti brings an intimate, melancholy focus to his interest in the people underneath the images. But what exactly is the source of his anxiety? Moretti—deliberately, I assume—leaves answers to that question somewhat muddled. All we know is that Melville seems to have a thing for the theater; at a hotel in which he hides out after escaping from the church's clutches, for instance, he encounters a theater troupe rehearsing for a production of Anton Chekhov's The Seagull and joins in with them—in addition to being perpetually doubtful about his ability to measure up to the religious authority inherent in his new position. We Have a Pope intriguingly equates being the most important Catholic religious figure in the world to being a great actor—and Melville finds himself feeling as inadequate in giving this performance as he was in pursuing acting as a full-time profession. Even as Moretti leaves Melville's psychology opaque, though, Piccoli brings a soulful emotional weight to his character's crisis of confidence; his first couple of close-ups, upon realizing he has been appointed the new pope, brilliantly suggest a whole internal dramatic arc from awed excitement to troubled ambivalence.
Melville's dilemma isn't the whole show, however. Bruzzi's "imprisonment" in the Vatican—even after Melville has escaped, he's not allowed to leave the premises, thus forced to interact with the other cardinals in card games and religious arguments—offers a lightweight counterpoint to Melville's more introspective musings. This subplot climaxes in an inspired, if overextend, comic set piece in which Bruzzi helps set up a volleyball tournament among these religious folk. Seeing all these popes enjoying themselves while playing an unfamiliar sport brings home the film's larger theme of the inner humanity of these figures, normally thought of in reverent tones. Moretti punctuates this sequence with an ironic slow-motion montage that treats their game like the play of gods, complete with heavenly sounding music (courtesy of Franco Piersanti) on the soundtrack.
Even at its messiest and most meandering, We Have a Pope exudes a refreshing warmth toward its characters, treating the religious traditions dictating their behavior not with spiky condescension but with affectionate amusement.
Film Comment Selects 2012 runs from February 17—March 1.