Michel Piccoli in "We Have a Pope." (Philippe Antonello / Sundance…)
What if they picked a pope and he went AWOL? That's the premise of Nanni Moretti's new film, a gentle fable whose humanist heart beats in Michel Piccoli's nuanced performance. As a man of faith facing a secular crisis — over a life unfulfilled — the seasoned actor is stirring. Yet "We Have a Pope" ("Habemus Papam") is too gingerly to be persuasive.
In his imagining of the papal conclave, Moretti aims for basic verisimilitude but avoids grounding topicality. There's only the slightest reference to contemporary troubles in the Roman Catholic Church, and no sense of politics or ambition among the cardinals assembled to choose a new pontiff. In a nice touch, many, in fact, pray that they won't be chosen. Collectively, they have a childlike aura, not least in the lovely rising emotion when, after a number of ballots, French cardinal Melville (Piccoli) is elected.
Not feeling the calling, Melville withdraws in panic before embarking on increasingly implausible wanderings. In the film's most problematic component, a glum psychiatrist (Moretti) is enlisted to help. Sequestered at the Vatican even after his patient has slipped into the streets of Rome, the doctor provides lessons in pharmacology and volleyball to the clerics, in scenes bordering on cutesy.
The comic misfires, mild though they are, distract from the pope-elect's story, which never really comes into focus, despite the intriguing what-if at its center and Piccoli's tender portrait.