Film Review: We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam)

A nifty concept, sumptuous production design and star turn from vet French actor Michel Piccoli as an unwilling Pope brighten this lightweight comedy, but VOD availability only one week following theatrical and less-than-stellar word of mouth won&#8217

Filmmaker/actor Nanni Moretti has had deserved recognition stateside (most notably for The Son’s Room) and Michel Piccoli (over 50 roles including Contempt, Le Doulos and The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie, stretching back to 1954’s classic French Cancan) was practically an art-house staple back in the day, so how wonderful to have both in theatres again.

Their new platform together, We Have a Pope, which previously did the Cannes and Toronto fest axis, is nice enough. But in an era of entertainment overload where “nice enough” often isn’t good enough, this comedy about a just-elected Pope who goes AWOL in panic needs more than Moretti offers. But Catholics as well as non-Catholics will enjoy time spent in papal company.

Blessed (in a secular way!) with a promising concept that sends story (and Piccoli’s Pope) on the run, the film begins in the opulent quarters of the cardinals’ conclave as they gather and vote in secret for the one in their midst who will be the next Pope. The unfortunate and surprise winner, amongst over 100 candidates, is shy Cardinal Melville (Piccoli), who just doesn’t want the job. Being God’s representative on Earth is too heavy a crown for him to bear. The cheering tens of thousands in St. Peter’s Square drive that reality further to the now-panicky Melville.

A therapist (Moretti) is brought in to examine the patient, but the new Pope is deeply distressed and escapes into the Rome streets. A world crisis is at hand: Not only must the other cardinals be kept in the dark about the papal fugitive, but the Vatican must find him.

Charged with damage control is the Vatican’s PR maven (Jerzy Stuhr), who will be recognizable to anybody who’s ever crossed paths with flackery and its determination to fly the “truth” it force-feeds. He arranges for a Swiss Guard (Gianluca Gobbi) to occupy the Pope’s room and open and close the curtains as if he were there. Not a bad gig, as the Guard, who of course does not show himself at the window, experiences true luxury living (the wine, the meals) for the first time.

Meanwhile, the Pope in his civilian clothes roams the streets, even visits the therapist’s estranged wife (Margherita Buy), also a shrink, for help. It’s not forthcoming and Melville’s back on the street, possibly raising suspicions in viewers both onscreen and off that he may be tilting as much toward senility as fear of duty. The PR guy’s supplication to him by phone that “a billion people are waiting for you” hardly improves the grave situation.

Having disclosed his interest in the theatre (Melville studied acting but failed auditions), the Pope tags along with a traveling troupe staying in his hotel and gets to show off some Chekhov dialogue. He even buys a box seat at a performance, but a gaggle of cardinals are also in attendance and complicate matters.

The film’s Vatican scenes and papal costumes are glorious and contribute much to the grand scale and richness of the overall look. And the cardinals (including Ulrich von Dobschutz, Renato Scarpa, Franco Graziosi, Camillo Milli and Roberto Nobile) in blazing red finery are a highly convincing bunch. The film’s pacing is as vivid and fluid as the flowing red robes.

But Pope’s ending is a letdown, in light of the potent dramatic and comedic elements of escape, personal and papal crises, and fear of disclosure that grows as the Vatican confronts an embarrassment of global proportions.