Nanni Moretti's new film We Have a Pope opens inside the Vatican, where Catholic church officials from all corners of the globe are gathered to select a new pope. At first, the proceeding is solemn and serious, as one imagines such an event would be.
But as the vote nears, viewers are led into the inner thoughts of the electors and the mood shifts. It seems none of those who are in the running want the job - in fact, they pray NOT to get picked - and you instantaneously realize, Oh, this is a comedy.
Michel Piccoli plays the newly elected head of the Catholic Church, and from the look on his gravely inexpressive face, he's not so happy. In fact, just before he is to step out onto the balcony to greet the masses gathered in St. Peter's Square, he has a panic attack and refuses to greet his followers. While everyone around him seems to be thinking 'What have we done?' the most pressing business is that they get him pulled together enough to at least take to the balcony for a quick wave. He won't have any of it; it's like a three-year-old's tantrum in the body of a grown man.
Called in to intervene is "lo psicoanalista" - a psychoanalyst (played by Moretti, who also wrote the movie) who is eager to help but dismayed that the new pope's urgent session is to be held in front of all those who've elected him. (So much for confidentiality.) Hours turns into days, the media is abuzz, and the pope is no closer to being ready to reveal himself. Rather, he decides to secretly leave the Vatican completely - in street clothes, sort of like he's in real person drag with an anonymous face - while this crisis of conscience works itself out. Among his adventures are a trip to a department store and a pub, and he falls in with a theater company staging Chekhov.
As stately and holy as Piccoli reluctant pope looks in the official garb, he seems to be more comfortable in his skin on the streets. He's like a new calf getting his bearings, and Moretti throws in witty and logical details, as in a scene where the pope decides he should call in but realizes he has no money for a pay phone. Though a section of the film involving a seemingly spontaneous volleyball game back at the Vatican seems a tacked-on afterthought, the movie is a lot of fun, especially watching Piccoli, who turns 87 this year but shows in this sturdy performance that once acting is in your genes, it's a skill that never goes dormant.