By Michael Wilmington
It begins beautifully, with a recreation, or creative imagining, of a Catholic election for a new pope, inside the Holy See, as the world awaits outside, done with a rare mixture of realism and whimsy. This brilliant scene culminates with the choice of a gentle soul, one Cardinal Melville (the great 86-year-old Michel Piccoli), a humble man who, just as he is about to be introduced to the masses outside St. Peter’s, howls with agony and confesses to his fellow churchmen that he feels unworthy and unready.
Desperate, the Vatican insiders (especially the smooth church spokesperson played winningly by Poland’s Jerzy Stuhr) try to cover up this huge problem. They hire an agnostic psychotherapist, Bruzzi (writer/director/star Nanni Moretti) to help the new Pope over this rather large spiritual hump, then hamstring Bruzzi with religious do’s and don’ts.
The cardinals, trapped together, take up volleyball. Melville wanders the streets and the city incognito, becoming entranced with a theater troupe playing Chekhov’s poignant masterpiece “The Seagull.” We await the word of God, or at least of Moretti.
The second half of “We Have a Pope” is not as mesmerizing as the first, and the jokes begin to get a little strained. But the ending is strong, and this is a unique work (from the often-excellent creator of Italian comedy classics such as “Red Lob” and “Dear Diary”), that at least is about something – about problems and people, and this world and (maybe) the next.
“We Have a Pope” was nominated for the 2011 Cannes Film Festival’s Palme d’Or, and his Cannes popularity is a measure of Moretti’s artistic stature – as opposed to, oh, say, Adam Sandler’s or Will Ferrell’s.
Can comedy, that old devil, get you into heaven? If that’s the case, all I can say is: Bless me father, for I have sinned.
“We Have a Pope” opens today in New York and LA.