“We Have a Pope” could also be called “We Lost the Pope.” In this latest from Italian writer-director Nanni Moretti (known for his moving 2001 drama “The Son’s Room”), European film icon Michel Piccoli plays a Catholic cardinal named Melville, elected to the papacy on the death of the past pontiff. Rather than immediately adorn himself with the brocade vestments and golfball-sized finger bling, Melville has a meltdown. And scampers away from the Swiss Guard and the other curates to wander the streets of Rome, deciding whether to officially assume the office.
From Shakespeare’s Henry V, wandering incognito among his soldiers on the eve of battle, to the prince and the pauper taking a walk in each others’ shoes, to heaven’s emissaries overseeing Berlin in “Wings of Desire,” the idea of an angel leaning in on mortal thoughts has always been a potent literary trope. That’s the initial trajectory “We Have a Pope” follows. But it winds up being less diagrammatic and more elusive than that. It’s a movie you have to respect as much for what it doesn’t do as for what it actually achieves.
The movie, like others by Moretti, is sweet, droll and a little slow. The writer-director finds deadpan comedy in moments that humanize the scarlet-clad cardinals as they wait, sequestered from the outside world. For example, during a power outage, they’re forced to remain in the dark because candles would “ruin the frescoes.” Moretti, playing a shrink who is also kept locked inside the Vatican after consulting the pontiff-to-be, focuses the clerics by organizing them in an indoor volleyball tournament.
The problem is that this subplot cuts into time we should be spending with the main character. The main plotline is weirdly upstaged by this digression. That’s something you shouldn’t do to a cinematic treasure like Piccoli, who has acted opposite Catherine Deneuve and Brigitte Bardot and worked repeatedly for director Luis Buñuel during the French film renaissance of the 1960s and ’70s. While you can admire Moretti for sidestepping the sort of big payoff that a more commercial movie would aim for, he provides an ending that’s unexpected yet anticlimactic. You leave “We Have a Pope” wondering exactly what its director intended to say.
“We Have a Pope.” With Michel Piccoli. Directed by Nanni Moretti. In Italian with subtitles. Unrated. 104 minutes. At Landmark Midtown Art Cinema.