04/03/2012 08:48 am ET Updated Jun 03, 2012

Movie review: We Have a Pope

Thoughtful but funny in a low-key way, Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope examines the idea of papal succession through a fictional story that reminds us just how daunting the job itself must be.

After the death of the old pope in this story, when the College of Cardinals gathers in conclave to consider who should succeed as head of the Catholic Church, Moretti reads the minds of the various cardinals as they wait for the vote-count to begin - and their thoughts are universally the same: "Please don't choose me."

Eventually, the conclave settles on elderly Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli), who seems shocked at his selection. He is so shocked, in fact, that he blurts out that he can't do the job.

So even though the puff of white smoke has been sent up, signaling that a pope has been chosen, the new pontiff does not appear on the balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, where the assembled faithful await their first glimpse of the new pope. He refuses to accept.

The cardinals decide to bring in a psychologist (Moretti himself), to try to get the new pope to open up and explain his fear. One problem: The cardinals won't leave doctor and patient alone to talk. They insist on guarding the new pope, encircling the two men, doctor and patient, in a large room, as the shrink tries to get the obviously unhappy older man to open up.

In short order, the new pope has used an outing with the Vatican's press secretary to make his getaway. Because the name of the new pope has not yet been announced, Cardinal Melville can still wander the city in his own clothes, ruminating on his future and trying to come to terms with what God's plan seems to mean for him.

Moretti needles the press, particularly TV journalists who cover the Vatican. While the appointment of a new pope is a sacred moment, the TV reporters, desperate for news, blather on about it as though talking about the movements and machinations of a movie star, even as they are herded and manipulated by the wily press secretary.

Ultimately, Moretti has made a movie about responsibility - and about the fear of not being up to a responsibility you have taken on. In the case of Melville, it is the expectation of the entire Catholic world that the Pope is the voice through which God speaks to them. He fears that he is unworthy of such a designation: If he doubts his own worthiness, how can be up to the task?

Piccoli brings great vulnerability to the role: a beatific smile that masks quaking fear of failing in the most important job he can think of. Yet he also captures the man's ability to recognize his own strengths, to recall the faith that drew him to this calling. As he wanders the streets of Rome, interacting with everyday people, he rediscovers his own desire to serve others. Will that be enough to give him the strength he will need?

Moretti's film is quiet but sharply funny at times - not just in the strange juxtaposition of cardinals in robes playing volleyball (an activity organized by the psychotherapist, who is under house arrest until the situation is resolved) but in the acerbic relationship between the press and the Vatican spokesman.

We Have a Pope presents a seemingly unlikely situation and makes it seem real, investing it with more feeling and drama than you'd expect, even as it makes you laugh. It's a film that's full of surprises that will both tickle and move you.

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