Title: We Have a Pope

Director: Nanni Moretti

Starring: Michel Piccoli, Nanni Moretti, Jerzy Stuhr, Margherita Buy, Renato Scarpa, Franco Graziosi, Enrico Ianniello

An amiable comedy import at once thoughtful and low-key, multi-hyphenate Nanni Moretti’s Italian-language “We Have a Pope” takes an unlikely subject — the aftermath of the election of a new pontiff, and the swirl of self-doubt surrounding the newly infallible voice of God on Earth — and turns it into something rich, surprising and altogether rewarding.

At the Vatican conclave to select the new pope, Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli, of “Contempt” and “Belle de Jour”) emerges as a surprise candidate on a fourth or fifth ballot. Caught off guard upon his selection, Melville panics right before he is set to address throngs of faithful Catholics in St. Peter’s Square as the new pontiff. He retreats to his room, but all manner of coddling and encouragement from his former peers cannot assuage his overwhelming doubt and anxiety. How can God have selected him?

As the conclave must remain in walled-off isolation until the pope’s introduction, a papal spokesman (Jerzy Stuhr) arranges for a renowned psychiatrist and atheist academic (Moretti) to visit, and try to coax Melville into acceptance. Once on site, he too is captive, though, and forbidden from leaving. Later, upon an arranged outside visit with another, female psychiatrist (Margherita Buy), the ex-wife of Moretti’s professor, Melville slips away, and begins wandering around Rome incognito. He eventually takes refuge with a theatrical company preparing for a production of Anton Chekov’s “The Seagull.” As the spokesman concocts a scheme to convince all of the cardinals that Melville is still in the Vatican, and isolated in prayer in  his room, the psychiatrist rallies the cardinals and convinces them that a volleyball tournament in the open courtyard will buoy Melville’s spirits.

It may sound outlandish or silly on the surface, but “We Have a Pope” is anything but. The script, co-written by Moretti with Federica Pontremoli and Francesco Piccolo, is warm, humanistic, and abidingly funny, mainly because Moretti plays the comedy deliciously straight. By turning down the temperature on the stakes, it makes everything stand out in contrast. This is a comedy where everything flows smoothly from recognizably human sentiments and instincts.

In his distinct highlighting of both physical and emotional isolation (the analyst and the cardinals) and freedom (Melville’s wanderings through the more secular world), “We Have a Pope” locates and mines rich parallels in human doubt without ladling on metaphorical heft. Moretti’s movie unfolds in a world absent the spate of scandals recently attached to the Catholic Church; it’s all about the interior landscapes of these characters, and the feelings they share. Alessandro Pesci’s cinematography and Esmeralda Calabria’s editing certainly abet this tack, framing the proceedings with a solemnity and dignity that deftly counterbalances the movie’s often amusing dialogue.

The performances, too, are special; Piccoli is arresting and sympathetic as Melville, bringing a great vulnerability to the role. And Moretti himself is wry and wonderful, delivering a droll turn. There isn’t a big play for profundity here, but the omissions of “We Have a Pope” shouldn’t count as strikes against it, and given a simple surrender to its basic conceit the movie richly compensates arthouse-leaning and intellectually curious viewers with both laughs and an awakened contemplation.

Technical: B+

Acting: A-

Story: B+

Overall: B+

Written by: Brent Simon

We Have a Pope

By Brent Simon

A graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Brent Simon is a three-term president of LAFCA, a contributor to Screen International, Newsweek Japan, Magill's Cinema Annual, and many other outlets. He cannot abide a world without U2 and tacos.

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