"God sees abilities in me I don't have," laments the protagonist of Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti's new movie. Such self-doubt is hardly novel, but Melville (Michel Piccoli) has a special stake in God's opinion of him — he's just been elected pope.
Although best known in this country for the playful Dear Diary and the melancholy The Son's Room, Moretti is a committed leftist and a stalwart opponent of Silvio Berlusconi. His previous film, The Caiman, lunged for the then-prime minister's throat. Yet We Have a Pope is not the filmmaker's next assault on a Roman patriarch. It's a half-sweet, half-rueful existential drama in which the satire comes secondary.
Moretti, who usually takes the lead role in his films, here plays a supporting character: Bruzzi, a psychiatrist summoned urgently to the Vatican after Melville insists he can't take the job. But the movie belongs to Piccoli and his character, who creates a backstage drama by refusing to address the faithful awaiting their new pontiff.
In cafes around town, people speculate that the new pope has already died, and the Vatican can't admit it. In a harsher lampoon, the Vatican's harried spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) would have the reluctant pope iced and proceed to the next candidate. Instead, he announces that the Church's new leader has retired to his chambers to pray, showing his admirable humility.
Bruzzi's session with the new pope is a flop, and so the Church sends Melville to the city's "second best" — the shrink's estranged wife (Margherita Buy). Rather than revealing his identity, Melville tells her that he's an actor.
It's not a casual choice. Acting and other sorts of role-playing are among the movie's essential motifs. Melville escapes from his handlers and flees to a hotel, where he encounters a troupe that's rehearsing Chekhov's The Seagull. The almost-pope (who's named for French director Jean-Pierre Melville) knows all the lines. More than that, he knows Chekhov's characters and their futile, time-killing lives.
Back at the Vatican, another performer takes another stage. A member of the Swiss Guard is enlisted to occupy the pope's apartment, reassuring the crowd outside simply with his shadow behind the curtains. Posing as pope, the movie gently suggests, is a better gig than actually being him.
Nearby, Bruzzi is also biding his time. He's not allowed to leave, lest he reveal the Church's predicament to the docile journalists that Moretti quietly but astutely mocks. So the shrink analyzes the mood-altering pills the cardinals pop and organizes a volleyball tournament.
In one of the most striking scenes, Bruzzi lectures the clerics on the psalms. He argues that such lines as "My heart is blighted, and withered like grass" prove that depression is a biblical matter.
Less forlorn now that he's free, Melville takes to the streets, listening to the Mercedes Sosa song that the cardinals are hearing at the same moment. "Todo cambia," she sings — everything changes.
Piccoli was 85 when the movie was made, and his very presence attests to change. But where Melville tries to escape his fate, the actor's performance is a lovely portrait of acceptance.
Moretti's biggest-budget feature, the film deftly incorporates news footage, weaving it with Vatican scenes shot on impressively believable sets. But its soul is in the streets, which is where American moviegoers likely first encountered Moretti, riding his Vespa through Dear Diary. Rather than a strident critique of Catholic dogma and conduct, We Have a Pope offers a simple bit of advice: The Church really ought to get out more. (Recommended) Copyright 2012 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.