Catholic Cardinals pray over an important decision in We Have a Pope.
With We Have a Pope, Italian director Nanni Moretti shares a story of juicy political fiction. "What would happen if the newly elected pope was unwilling to accept his responsibilities?" the film asks. Moretti's answer: A brilliantly fun volleyball tournament, for one thing.
Yes, We Have a Pope is detached from reality. With dozens of sext-, sept-, and octogenarians gathered to pick one among them as God's chosen servant, you'd think someone would be at least up to the task, if not actively maneuvering to win the vote. It's all OK, however, because this film is thoroughly entertaining from beginning to end. And if Moretti had been able to inject the final third with a little more cohesion, a little more character depth, a little more umph, we might be talking about 2012's first truly great film.
After the death of the Pope, Catholic leaders from across the world gather in Rome. The new conclave takes many days to settle on Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) as the right man for the job. At 90/1 odds, it's something he nor anyone else ever expected, but when he's ultimately asked, Melville accepts. So the Cardinals gather at the balcony for the official announcement, but Melville lets out an agonizing scream just before his name is called out.
The Cardinals, confused, retreat and console their now hysterical leader, while thousands of faithful men and women look in awe at the surreal scene in front of them. Melville goes into hiding for days, while those around him try to figure out what exactly he needs to hear that will give him the courage to embrace the papacy. They even bring in a non-believing psychoanalyst (Moretti himself) to see if Melville's past holds the key. But all he really needs is some time to think, so he slips the papal guard and begins roaming the Roman streets in search of an answer.
The film is really anchored by an outstanding lead performance from French actor Michel Piccoli. Melville is a very mild-mannered individual, and he's totally thrown for a loop when thrust into the spotlight. He's not a leader, but rather someone who needs to be led, to quote an individual from the movie. His sudden panic leads to some very serious introspection, and though these scenes aren't the most dramatically potent, Piccoli commands our attention in a very quiet and dignified way.
If Melville's personal discovery is story A, story B is the Cardinals' waiting game for their leader to, well, lead them. We Have a Pope's classification as a comedy stems from this material, and though it's not laugh-out-loud funny, like a 21 Jump Street, it's among the most charming material in any recent film. The aforementioned volleyball tournament scene is inspired, and the cast of characters (from all around the world) carries another somewhat inert storyline to hilarious heights.
Moretti's direction isn't flashy, but the mise en scene and costumes are exquisite. Of course, setting your film at one of the most breathtaking places on Earth should yield a visually magnificent picture, but there's no arguing with how We Have a Pope is crafted. The film also works thanks to a strong screenplay, which eschews The King's Speech-esque "voice finding" for something a little more sincere.
We Have a Pope premiered at Cannes last year and received a generally frosty reception, with the general consensus being that it doesn't live up to the promise of its premise. I just don't think it's the film people expected or wanted it to be. It's not a hard-hitting Vatican expose, nor a The Ides of March-style political thriller. It's just a gentle tale of personal discovery that happens to be set on one of the world's largest stages. Nothing wrong with that, however, when your film is easily one of the year's most enjoyable.