CANNES REVIEW: Habemus Papam and the Perils of Popehood

In the '70s New York Magazine ran occasional contests, in one case asking readers to submit greeting cards for unlikely occasions. Nanni Moretti's Habemus Papam -- or We Have a Pope -- screening in competition here at the festival, could use one of those entries as its tagline: "Saw your smoke, now you're Pope, congrats!"

Actually, it's kind of a bummer to be Pope, which is the idea behind this way-too-gentle but still potentially incendiary comedy by Nanni Moretti (director of the 2001 Palme d'Or winner The Son's Room). Michel Piccoli stars as a sad old cardinal who's surprised to find himself elected to the biggest job in the world -- or at least the one with the flashiest costumes. All the other voting cardinals are relieved not to have been chosen -- one of the numerous cute gags in the movie involves shots of nervous Vatican pope-deciders casting their votes while whispering variations of "Not me, Lord! Please, not me!"

Piccoli seems OK with the appointment at first, and then suffers a panic attack. And what sane person wouldn't? A psychoanalyst (played by Moretti himself) is brought in to delve into Piccoli's psyche, although he's not allowed to ask questions about the subject's dreams, sexual fantasies, mother or childhood. What else is there? Before long, Piccoli escapes the Vatican and emerges, blinking, in the outside world, where he comes to terms with his lifelong ambition of being a theater actor.

Being a Pope is high theater, but it's not the kind he wants. The big problem with Habemus Papum is that Piccoli (historically a wonderful and charming performer) just looks shell-shocked every minute. There's no texture to the performance. The zonked expression on his face is the same in every sequence: He looks as if he's pondering which cardigan to wear to the big bocce tournament.

Still, as lukewarm as Habemus Papam may be as a piece of filmmaking, Moretti doesn't tread particularly gently into sacred territory. Catholics in general and Italian Catholics in particular are very serious about their Pope, and reportedly, Moretti has faced some criticism in his home country. That's what you get for daring to suggest that popes are people too. If nothing else, Moretti does come up with great gag in which a trio of jolly cardinals, thrilled that their pope-choosing duties are over (or at least they think they're over) try to get their fellow cardinal BFFs to go out for doughnuts and a Caravaggio exhibit at a local museum -- the Vatican equivalent of cracking open a cold one.