'We Have a Pope' is a gentle Vatican dramedy

Elected pope but unrecognized and hiding out in Rome, an old man watches a theater rehearsal and mouths words by Chekhov, his childhood idol.

It’s among the many amusing and affecting scenes of director Nanni Moretti’s film “We Have a Pope” (“Habemus Papam,” the traditional announcement when cardinals elect a new pontiff), screening at the San Francisco Film Society’s New Italian Cinema program this week.

“Pope” has the same setting — the Vatican backstage scene — as Hollywood blockbusters “The Da Vinci Code” and “Angels and Demons,” but viewers will remember it longer.

While “Da Vinci” and “Angels” are big-budget adventures with Tom Hanks, “Pope” is about the humanity of characters confronted and confounded by the demands of being at the pinnacle of ecclesiastic power.

All three are fiction, but “Pope” is rooted in reality, even if it’s an imagined one: What if a man cannot bear the burden of responsibility of being venerated by a billion people for whom he is the shepherd and rock of the Catholic Church?

Much more than just a comedy, the movie is a fascinating drama that has gentle humor, such as images of cardinals engaging in a heated volleyball tournament as they wait helplessly for resolution of an unprecedented crisis of succession.

The great character actor Michel Piccoli, 85, plays Cardinal Melville — elected as pope, but refusing to serve. Through complex — but credible — events, the reluctant pope escapes from the Vatican and hides out in Rome among actors, whose life and work remind him of his youthful love for the theater.

The Vatican setting is rich (even though most of the film was shot in a studio), and the whole cast is terrific.

Moretti, who co-wrote the script, plays a disheveled psychiatrist held captive in the Vatican, tasked with “curing” the pope’s malady. Margherita Buy is his ex-wife and excessively Freudian competitor.

Exceptionally authentic performances also are by actors playing senior cardinals (who prayed during the election that they not be selected) and powerhouse Vatican officials, as well as Jerzy Oskar Stuhr, who is outstanding as the Vatican spokesman.

MOVIE REVIEW

We Have a Pope (Habemus Papam)

★★★½
Starring Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Franco Graziosi
Written by Nanni Moretti, Francesco Piccolo, Federica Pontremoli
Directed by Nanni Moretti
Not rated
Running time 1 hour, 42 minutes
Note: The film screens at 6:30 and 9:15 p.m. Sunday at New People Cinema as part of the San Francisco Film Society’s New Italian Cinema festival, running through Sunday.

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