‘We Have a Pope’ is a fictional look at a reluctant pontiff

Michel Piccoli in Nanni Moretti's 'We Have a Pope — Photo courtesy of Philippe Antonello

Director Nanni Moretti has crafted many modern-day classics. The Son’s Room, an exquisite small film about an Italian family dealing with the death of a child, is one of his best, a gentle portrait of loved ones in crisis. The celebrated Italian filmmaker has added much to the cinematic canon in the past few decades, and he continues his impressive trend with We Have a Pope, a comedy about a cardinal (Michel Piccoli) unsure about his ascendancy to the highest clerical position in the Roman Catholic Church.

When “Il papa” is chosen by the college of cardinals and the appropriate smoke makes its way through the chimney of the Sistine Chapel, the gravity of the situation settles in like an eternal weight on the new pontiff’s shoulders. Perhaps the outside world would think this elevation comes with joy and expectation, but our central character has trouble breathing and can’t understand why his collared colleagues chose him above anyone else.

When he’s first presented to the throngs of faithful at St. Peter’s Square in the Vatican, he can’t even muster the courage to step to the iconic window of the church. Instead, he begins screaming, almost like a little child, and heads in the opposite direction. This pope wants out of his new role, and he needs time to think.

Moretti also turns up in an acting role, a common feature of his movies. This time he plays a psychiatrist who tries to talk to the pontiff, attempting to find out the reason behind the cold feet. When their relationship stalls, Il papa heads out into the streets of Rome as a stranger on the sidewalk. As the world waits for the first official announcement of who the new pope will be, and the college of cardinals continues to be sequestered in the Vatican, the person of the hour walks the streets like an everyman, and not the esteemed successor of St. Peter.

The concept behind the movie, which was written by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli, is a clever one. But the execution is somewhat haphazard. Having a reluctant pope could have made for some in-depth scenes of prayer and contemplation. Oddly, this Il papa almost never prays, and that proves to be somewhat strange. Are we supposed to believe that a person who has been elevated to the highest position in the Roman Catholic Church wouldn’t turn toward God to help him with the decision? Yes, walking the streets and getting to know the people who populate the capital city is a nice parallel to the life of Jesus. Yes, it’s interesting to see the pontiff take a liking to the arts and theater. Yes, it all seems to work nicely as a clever metaphor. But, at the heart of this movie, is a Christian church, yet there’s hardly any reference to this man’s faith.

Still, there’s much to enjoy in We Have a  Pope. The movie plays well as a comedy, even though it deals with issues of great importance. While Il papa walks the streets, Moretti’s psychiatrist tries to enliven the saddened cardinals, who can’t have contact with the outside world until the pontiff presents himself properly to the public. The psychiatrist inspires them by setting up a volleyball tournament. Again — funny, but a little strange for men of God to find solace in sport rather than their Messiah.

The strongest attribute of the film is Piccoli’s understated performance. He’s not given much dialogue, but yet the actor is able to convey many emotions through his bleary-eyed face and wan expression. He seems stuck in an impossible situation, experiencing multiple panic attacks and severe doubts. It’s a bravura performance in a film that can’t quite attain a similar excellence.

We Have a Pope will likely be categorized as a delightful asterisk in Moretti’s cinematic career, a film that achieves enough of its goals to win some admiration. Although simultaneously it will feel like a missed opportunity to say something more about a process and people so worthy of deeper thought.

By John Soltes / Publisher / John@HollywoodSoapbox.com

  • We Have a Pope

  • In Italian with English subtitles

  • 2012

  • Directed by Nanni Moretti

  • Written by Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli

  • Starring Michel Piccoli and Moretti

  • Running time: 102 minutes

  • Rating: ★★★☆

John Soltes

John Soltes is an award-winning journalist. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, Earth Island Journal, The Hollywood Reporter, New Jersey Monthly and at Time.com, among other publications. E-mail him at john@hollywoodsoapbox.com

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