My knowledge of all things Catholic and Pope-related is shall we say… poor. My interest in such topics is very limited. So, a movie about selecting a new Pope and the drama that unfolds when His Holiness isn’t up to the task is not something I would typically seek out. I don’t think any of this would preclude me from enjoying such a film. I do admit it has a handicap, and would need to be something special to rise above my prejudice and entice me out of apathy. Director/writer/star and past Palm d’Or winner Nanni Moretti’s We Have a Pope did none of these things.
After a long process of deliberation, the conclave of cardinals selects the unsuspecting Melville (Michel Piccoli) as their new leader. They choose him mostly because none of them really want the gig. When the time comes to introduce the man to the faithful, he panics, flees, and the world is left guessing. The set-up feels like an outtake from History of the World: Part I. When a renowned psychiatrist (Moretti) is brought in to help the new Pope, or at the very least get him on the damn balcony, the story feels even more like a comical sketch.
The problem is the film doesn’t take the absurdist humor approach and opts for a straightforward examination of the Pope instead. Diminishing things further is the fact that the movie never really comes to a satisfactory explanation for Melville’s crisis. We are left to assume it has something to do with his sister, possibly his childhood, and a whole lot of Chekov. Even worse, the film decides to separate the Pope’s story and the shrink’s. So while the Pope is out finding himself, the atheist professor debates and lounges around with the cardinals (no one is allowed to leave until the Pope is announced to the world).
The premise is unique and could have been a good jumping off point. Having this outsider trapped and isolated amongst religion’s most powerful while also trying to save their leader could have inspired all kinds of wonderful hi-jinks, but they squash any of that by separating the two stories. Whenever they do cut back to the non-believer, it is meant to be lighter and funnier. Like when he throws an impromptu volleyball tournament, but the tonal shift doesn’t work and it’s never all that amusing.
I like the two lead performances, but they should have been allowed to bounce off each other for more than one scene. The plot meanders a lot. There’s too much contemplation and not enough actually said. Another religious Cannes offering, Of Gods and Men, was equally dull, but at least I understood what it was trying to say. True, this isn’t really a movie I’m wired to enjoy, but I don’t think anyone else will be either.