Why is this pope hiding in the bushes? The first comic conceit in Nanni Moretti's delightful and touching 2011 film We Have A Pope (Habemus Papam) is that no one wants to be pope, especially the guy who is elected, Cardinal Melville -- played by the extraordinary Michel Piccoli. There is no timelier film to catch right now on DVD or streaming (on Netflix, iTunes and Amazon).
In real life, of course we've been hearing for weeks about the election, the conclave and the secrecy. We Have A Pope creates scenes during the voting in the Sistine Chapel. Except for a cardinal stumbling in the dark when the power goes out, the film treats the process with some reverence. At least there's no hint of the campaigning and jockeying for power that surely exists, however coded and subterranean it is compared to most politicking. Moretti directs plenty of satire at the news media, though, tackling themes all too familiar now: the horse race for Pope, the wildly wrong guesses, the anxiety about identifying or misidentifying the color of tell-tale smoke from the papal chimney.
In fact, Moretti's film isn't really about religion or politics - or the politics of religion. It's a surprisingly tender, light-handed film that takes off when the Pope, paralyzed by fear, refuses to accept his outsized role. The Vatican calls in a psychologist, played by Moretti himself, but the doctor can't grapple with the Pope's pesonal issues because the entire college of cardinals is listening in. We see him perfectly well, though, following along as the new Pope goes on the run and the film becomes a smart meditation on the demands of power and fame. When will this poor man ever be able to walk down a street alone again?
Moretti never loses sight of the film's comedy; the psychologist has enough time on his hands to organize a volley-ball tournament of cardinals. But it's Piccoli - veteran of films by so many greats, including Bunuel, de Oliveira, and Godard - who brings heart and depth to the story, accomplishing what all the recent news reports haven't quite managed to do: make a Pope seem human.