It’s probably unfair to pine for the movie a director didn’t make, but it’s disappointing that Nanni Moretti’s Vatican dramedy We Have A Pope has so little to do with the actual selection process for a new pontiff. It’s such a ripe subject: a gathering of cardinals from all over the world, voting on who among them will be chosen as the leader of the Catholic church, and by extension, determining what they mean to say to the faithful about what the institution means, now and for the near future. But Moretti dispatches that part of We Have A Pope’s story in its first 10 minutes, moving quickly through the rounds of balloting until the cardinals settle on dark-horse candidate Michel Piccoli. The real plot kicks in when Piccoli sits on the balcony, waiting to face the public for the first time, and suddenly breaks down screaming and crying.
The actual premise Moretti settles on for We Have A Pope isn’t bad: Moretti and Margherita Buy play therapists called in to help Piccoli overcome the feeling that he’s unworthy of his new office, and they work individually to get to the core of a man whose interior life is meant to remain unknown. Given that the process of selecting a new pope all but requires that the head man lose his identity, Piccoli’s sudden need to talk to a professional about his “parental deficit” troubles his staff. Meanwhile, We Have A Pope emphasizes religious ceremony and the thwarting thereof, as the masses of servants and subordinates lined up to execute the new pope’s will wonder what to do with a pontiff who’s terrified of making any statement. (For a society rooted in certainty, a leader who refuses to lead isn’t just a crisis; it’s baffling.)
But Moretti’s lack of interest in the cardinals’ politics and personality conflicts isn’t just confined to the first 10 minutes of We Have A Pope. Throughout, he seems more interested in moments of forced whimsy—such as a brief musical interlude, and a sequence where the cardinals take part in a volleyball tournament—than in individualizing any of the characters’ concerns. The bland therapist-speak throughout the movie is partly satirical, and partly indicative of how broadly Moretti has sketched both the new pope and the doctors trying to help him. There are some touching moments, as when Piccoli rediscovers his boyhood love of Chekhov, and when he’s overwhelmed by the responsibility of being adored. But it’s a shame that a movie about the pope as a man shows such scant fascination with the actual papacy—or with humanity, for that matter.