Like the classic runaway bride, the skittish lead character in Nanni Moretti’s emotionally generous and moving tragicomedy “We Have a Pope” wears a sumptuous gown, has the aspect or at least symbolic air of the unsullied and suffers from severe commitment issues. Soon after the film opens, Mr. Moretti’s runaway, Melville (Michel Piccoli), a French cleric elected pope, dons ceremonial white, sits in the Vatican forcing smiles and rapidly sags under the weight of the billion souls he’s charged with leading. Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown and so too the miter. What haunts Mr. Moretti’s character is whether he can embrace his role as pontiff.
“We Have a Pope” is the story of a specific crisis of conscience with larger reverberations, if not necessarily those you might expect from Mr. Moretti. (The film’s English title suggests auctions and game shows, while the Latin original, “Habemus Papam,” comes wreathed in incense-perfumed mystery.) An Italian leftist best known for films like “Caro Diario” and “The Son’s Room,” he has said that he isn’t a director but one who makes movies “when he has something to say.” At times what he has to say is overtly political, as in “Aprile,” when he implores, comically, desperately, a tongue-tied opponent of former Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, who is monopolizing a TV show, to “say something, answer, say something left wing, say something even not left wing, something civilized.”
Politics initially appears to have gone on hiatus in “We Have a Pope,” which opens with unidentified news images from the funeral of Pope John Paul II. The ceremony and the sight of thousands of bodies pressing into St. Peter’s Square instantly shifts the movie into a serious register that continues when Mr. Moretti cuts to lines of chanting old men in red, presumably the College of Cardinals, entering what looks like the Vatican. It’s all very exotic and solemn, or would be if the cardinals didn’t then pass a scrum of reporters who, separated from the clerics by ropes and stanchions, look as if they were covering the red carpet at the Oscars. “Cardinal,” demands one TV journalist, thrusting a microphone at the clerics, “could we have a statement?”
None of the cardinals dignify the question with a response, but with this scene Mr. Moretti, with characteristic efficiency, makes his own quiet statement about the connections among religion, spectacle and the media. These associations have already been implied in the opening funeral images, but Mr. Moretti’s touch is so light here that it feels as if he’s making an offhand observation about the church instead of building an argument. (He’s doing both.) And so it goes as the cardinals gather in the Sistine Chapel (by way of Cinecittà Studios) and, after a few ballot rounds, select Melville. As the faithful wait for him publicly to acknowledge his new role, an openly uneasy, increasingly unsure Melville hesitates and then abruptly runs off, seemingly leaving his flock hanging.
Except that Melville, wearing civilian clothing and still an unknown to the outside world, doesn’t abandon the faithful but walks among their numbers, at first with some confusion and then with mounting confidence and openness. In Rome stores and on buses he discovers people — notably, some of his first encounters are with gently ministering women — whose humanity helps awaken something human in him. Mr. Piccoli, a giant of European cinema, brings dignity to the role and an innocence that’s less childlike than unworldly. As he awkwardly navigates through Rome’s streets and stumbles into the chaos of its traffic, his body lurching and stumbling and sometimes almost toppling over, Melville seems as confused as a stranger or perhaps just a man newly awakened from a dream.
Mr. Moretti doesn’t turn that dream into his own dogma, and in truth there’s something so unforced about “We Have a Pope” that its assertion of papal humility and humanity rather than infallibility might be easy to miss. But it’s there, tucked in a story about a pope who describes himself with bittersweet self-knowing as an actor and meets a troupe rehearsing Chekhov’s “Seagull.” The Chekhov underscores Melville’s disappointment in his life and also works as a melancholic counterpoint to the volleyball matches at the Vatican arranged by a psychiatrist (Mr. Moretti) who’s been hired to guide the pope through his crisis. Mr. Moretti finds broad comedy in the antics of some clerics, who can seem as sweet as children, but in Melville there is pathos and there is tragedy, and not his alone.
We Have a Pope
Opens on Friday in New York and Los Angeles.
Directed by Nanni Moretti; written by Mr. Moretti, Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli; director of photography, Alessandro Pesci; edited by Esmeralda Calabria; music by Franco Piersanti; production design by Paola Bizzarri; costumes by Lina Nerli Taviani; produced by Mr. Moretti and Domenico Procacci; released by Sundance Selects. In Italian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 44 minutes. This film is not rated.
WITH: Michel Piccoli (the Pope), Jerzy Stuhr (Spokesperson), Renato Scarpa (Cardinal Gregori), Franco Graziosi (Cardinal Bollati), Camillo Milli (Cardinal Pescardona), Roberto Nobile (Cardinal Cevasco), Ulrich von Dobschütz (Cardinal Brummer) and Gianluca Gobbi (Swiss Guard).