To make a comic film or perhaps any kind of film about the papacy surely requires a good deal of delicacy, along with at least a modicum of courage. The few recent pictures that touch on the subject feature an interpretation of the venerable institution as a sinister organization with connections to other even more sinister organizations. "The Godfather, Part III" suggested that some prelates in the Vatican worked with the Mafia, and even showed the murder of a priest within the city-state. "The Da Vinci Code" resurrected one of those familiar Catholic conspiracies, this time based upon several loony notions, including a ridiculous interpretation of "The Last Supper."
Nanni Moretti's new movie, "We Have a Pope" (originally "Habemus Papam," the words announcing the election of a new pontiff), combines comedy and drama in a generally sympathetic and even touching view of the papal election and its results.
The movie begins with documentary footage of the funeral of John Paul II — a solemn and beautiful ceremony — then seamlessly moves to coverage of the College of Cardinals trooping into the Sistine Chapel to choose a successor. All the while a television reporter, whose commentary appears sporadically throughout the movie, questions the cardinals as they pass by, identifies several, and speculates about the favorites. He requests permission to film the procedure, thus reassuring American audiences that our TV news cannot claim sole ownership of effrontery and ignorance.
Within the chapel the cardinals proceed in their election in a manner that, at least to any lay person, appears authentic. As the cardinals begin their selection of candidates, a babel of languages reveals their thoughts: nobody wants the job, and each one prays he will not be chosen. After some indecisive ballots, the majority votes for a surprise candidate, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), an act that precipitates the movie's major plot.
Because the script provides nothing in the way of a back story, that particular choice, whatever its intrinsic interest, makes little sense within the context of "We Have a Pope." His name certainly suggests that Melville is an American, but the director never explores that possibility or anything else connected with his nationality. (He speaks Italian as fluently as everybody else in the movie and, at least to my ear, without a trace of an American accent, which negates any explanation for his character and conduct.)
Just as the cardinals announce their choice to the throngs in St. Peter's Square and the world, the new pope screams in anguish and tells his colleagues that he cannot accept the office. After that shock, most of the film shows the desperate attempts of the Vatican spokesperson (Jerzy Stuhr) to deal with the pope's apparent breakdown, deceive the public and the cardinals, and finally, search Rome for Melville when he escapes from a secret excursion to a psychoanalyst.
In civilian clothes, the pope wanders the city, seeking some solution to his dilemma, watching all the while the false reports from the Vatican that he is praying and meditating in private before publicly addressing the world. A love for the theater and a background in acting that he speaks (and occasionally lies) about lead him accidentally into the sphere of a theatrical troupe rehearsing a Chekhov play: probably the happiest moments in the action for this confused and melancholy man.
The most exuberant parts of the film show the director himself, playing a psychoanalyst called to treat the pope and then sequestered in the Vatican to keep the secret. He organizes a round-robin volleyball tournament among the cardinals, with teams based on geographical location. Delightfully comic and occasionally even graceful, the elderly, unathletic princes of the Church play with great spirit, cheered by priests, nuns, Swiss Guards, and even a papal impersonator.
"We Have a Pope" looks amazingly authentic, from its location shots of Rome to its astonishingly convincing interiors, apparently mingling actual sites with studio sets — nobody can film in the Sistine Chapel, for example, but the several scenes set there look absolutely real. Aside from the charm of its comedy, the movie also exhibits a genuine sense of pathos in the sad, conflicted state of its main character, and an ending simultaneously both logical and shocking.