A reluctant pope-elect is being forced to see an atheist therapist. It’s not the most alluring of farcical premises. But it’s something. The most intriguing and ballsiest thing from writer, director, actor and about-to-be Cannes jury president Nanni Moretti (Caro Diaro, The Son’s Room) is the laborious extent to which it sets up a clerical yukfest it will only waste. When Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli) whigs out over his surprise pope win, Moretti’s psychoanalyst is summoned. But before the two get so much as ankle-deep in Analyze This shenanigans, Melville has absconded with himself.
Ditching a premise mid-stride isn’t cause for alarm. The President’s Analyst, the oft-brilliant 1967 satire starring James Coburn, also wastes a similar set-up, but replaces it with increasingly inspired lunacy, including an all-seeing, all-controlling, all-evil Bell Telephone Company. Moretti’s concoction isn’t quite so ambitious. Free, Melville mingles with the masses, ingratiating himself unto a troupe of actors rehearsing The Seagull. Meanwhile, Moretti’s psychiatrist, having been lured all the way to Catholic HQ, makes the best of it by teaching the priests volleyball and card games.
“I’m an actor,” Melville fibs to his new friends when they ask. That may sound like satire—organized religion as performance—but don’t be so sure. Moretti has stated that he didn’t want to involve himself in politics or current events. We Have a Pope is, as he’s said, “his” Vatican, a product of his own imagination. Fair enough. Not every “jab” at Catholicism need enrage the no-skinned Catholic League, nor even at least allude to certain earth-quaking scandals.
Moretti is content to trade in what could easily described as old-person humor: The jokes are largely deadpan yuks about elderly priests acting lovably bumbling, rather than imperious and god-connected. It can be amusing, and that goes double for Moretti’s endless slight variations on being impatiently patient with his current employers. But We Have a Pope proves the wrong kind of serious comedy: that one that reaches a point where it no longer wishes to be funny and simply goes for pap. Melville’s awakening is thin gruel, so weak not even a predictably regal Piccoli—who’s been a Euro cinema institution since Belle de Jour, if not earlier—can elevate it. It was practically made to be overrated.