The College of Cardinals are locked in the Vatican, unable to leave until the next pope has been chosen. You’d think this would be an honor that the old men who had dedicated their lives to the church would be feverishly competing over, yet when director Nanni Moretti pans his camera over their withered faces, we can all tell they are thinking the same thing, “Please, please, Lord, don’t choose me.” That’s the starting point for Moretti’s gentle papal comedy We Have A Pope. It’s not a vicious satire of Catholic Church, but a more thoughtful piece about the immense pressure and responsibility of taking such a position. Fair enough, because who would really want to be the Pope anyways? It’s not all about wearing fantastic hats, it’s a life free of privacy and filled with scrutiny. A man asked to represent God as if his opinion could possibly be any more divine than the army of red cloaked chaps forever surrounding him. Moretti’s film shuffles through this concept rather ingeniously and while it may be just a little too simple, slow, and pat for some, We Have A Pope is certainly an intriguing little movie worthy of attention.
Eventually all those Cardinal-folk cast their votes and the choice seems to be unanimous. The elderly (obviously) Melville gets the call and while a smile might cross his face at the news, his body language reveals the truth, slinking deep into his seat terrified. Melville is given his new uniform and it’s announced the crowd that he will be making his first speech, but he doesn’t take the Vatican stage. Instead the Cardinals find him sobbing uncontrollably, unable to accept his new position. Now, it’s not exactly common for a Pope to step down once he’s been named the representative of God on earth, so everyone starts panicking. A psychiatrist is called (amusingly played by Moretti himself), but their “private” chat takes place in front of a lineup of curious Cardinals in a hilarious image. Eventually Melville sequesters himself and escapes, wandering the streets as an average man for possibly the last time while the Vatican and the world hold their breath wondering the heck n’ hellfire will happen.
What starts as almost screwball comedy quickly expands into a compelling examination of faith, doubt, weakness, and inner-strength. Melville is played exquisitely by Michel Piccoli, an 86-year-old veteran of over 200 films and longtime collaborator of Luis Bunuel. His character isn’t weak or a fool, he’s just understandably in existential crisis over his new position. At first, rather humorously so as he stumbles around in full Pope dress trying to sneak off the Vatican property or visit psychiatrists. Then it becomes a little more sad as he wanders the streets desperate for a normal life, speaking nostalgically about a failed acting career and doubting (even as he reaches the highest possible honor in his field) that he chose the right path in life. It’s one of those heartbreaking career-capping performances that would be Oscar-bait were it not for the Academy’s irrational fear of subtitles.
While Melville is off in crisis, Moretti keeps things delightfully goofy at the Vatican as both performer and director. His bored Cardinals behave like confused children unsure what’s wrong with daddy and Moretti even hilariously has them play an impromptu volleyball tournament at one point. These sequences kept the tone of the film light while Mellville’s plot becomes increasingly complex. Perhaps the most impressive thing about Moretti’s film is this balance of light comedy and his more high-minded interests. Despite some complex themes being explored, the film always feels light and joyful (well, up until a point). That’s not easy to do, particularly without making the comedy feel forced. But despite the potentially heady or controversial subject matter, Moretti never loses track of simple entertainment and we all know the effect of a spoonful of sugar.
We Have a Pope is a fairly fascinating little film, if imperfect. The subject matter is ripe for dark satire that would be entirely appropriate, but Moretti never dares to go there. Perhaps it was as simple as trying to avoid controversy with the Catholic Church during production. Yet, even if the movie can feel a bit featherweight, it still works on it’s own terms. Moretti doesn’t want to condemn the church or faith, he’s merely examining the price of taking on the title of Pope and the fear that must come along with it that we never see in public Popemobile appearances. It also make the film more universal, dealing with issues of regret and the fear of responsibility that every one shares even if they don’t lead possibly the largest international religious organization (Scientology hasn’t quite caught up yet, right?). The movie isn’t for everyone, but if the concept sounds even remotely intriguing to you, it’s not to be missed. At the very least, I think we can assume there will never be another movie quite like it, even though I would love to see a Nicolas Cage remake with additional explosions.