White knuckling the white smoke | East Villager & Lower East Sider

White knuckling the white smoke

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Michael Piccoli as a reluctant new pope in Nanni Moretti’s “We Have a New Pope.”

Michel Piccoli is a papal rookie not ready for his close-up

BY STEVE ERICKSON  |  In his 1994 quasi-documentary “Caro Diario,” actor and director Nanni Moretti expressed his fury at a film critic who praised “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.” Seventeen years later, he made “We Have a Pope,” a comedy set at the Vatican. Apparently, Moretti has mellowed out.

The man who was enraged by fictional violence never addresses the Catholic Church’s institutional homophobia and sexism or its cover-ups of pedophilia committed by clergy. Perhaps Moretti intended “We Have a Pope” to critique the Church more subtly; in the end, it’s a story about a man who feels crushed by its spotlight.

If “We Have a Pope” is far from irreverent, there’s no real spirituality in it either. Moretti’s on-screen alter ego is an atheist, and so is the director. The film is a featherweight soufflé, watchable mostly for Michel Piccoli’s startlingly committed performance as the unhappy title character.

“We Have a Pope” begins with a gathering of 108 cardinals at the Vatican about to elect the next pope. Melville (Piccoli) is chosen, much to his surprise. Rather than being flattered by the attention, he panics and refuses to appear in public. The Vatican calls in a psychiatrist (Moretti) to try to help him adjust to his new role. However, Melville insists he doesn’t want it; at a minimum, he says, it will take him years to get used to it. Trapped in Vatican City, the psychiatrist plays games with the remaining cardinals, while Melville dons civilian clothes and escapes, wandering around Rome and claiming he’s an actor.

Moretti has achieved a fair amount of celebrity in his native Italy and critical acclaim in France. Winning the Palme D’Or at Cannes in 2001 for “The Son’s Room” led to US distribution via Miramax, but otherwise, seeing his films here has been difficult. An IFC Center retrospective, which begins March 28, is a welcome chance to catch up with them. An Eclipse box set of his early work would be a fine addition to its collection.

While often compared to Woody Allen, Moretti’s films tend to be more prickly and overtly political. He reacted to the collapse of Eastern European Communism and its impact on Italy’s own Communist Party in both fictional (“Palombella Rossa”) and documentary (“The Thing”) form. However, the Berlusconi era seems to have defeated him. His 2006 “The Caiman” was a tepid satire of both politics and moviemaking.

Piccoli often seems to be acting in a completely different film from the rest of the cast of “We Have a Pope.” Moretti indulges silliness like a volleyball tournament between the cardinals while Melville is overwhelmed by anxiety and depression. Piccoli digs deep into a reservoir of vulnerability. His character always seems one step away from a panic attack. Over the course of “We Have a Pope,” he sees two psychoanalysts, but neither psychiatry nor religion offers much solace to him. The film’s ending is surprisingly dark, abandoning Melville to his neuroses.

Moretti really doesn’t seem that interested in religion per se. “We Have a Pope” is really about celebrity culture. Apart from his age, Melville is indistinguishable from a rock musician who suddenly has a hit single and finds that he can’t deal with fame. The most interesting thing about the film is its wholesale rejection of this culture’s values.

Moretti has used his fame in Italy to intervene in political debates and distribute films like Abbas Kiarostami’s “Close Up.” He hardly seems like a shrinking violet, yet one wonders if Melville’s desire to avoid the public is based in the director’s own experiences. If there’s something genuinely political and provocative in “We Have a Pope,” it’s the suggestion that there’s little difference between the Vatican and TMZ.

WE HAVE A POPE
Directed by Nanni Moretti
In Italian with English subtitles
Sundance Selects
Opens April 6
IFC Center
323 Sixth Ave. at W. Third St.
ifccenter.com