The Pope has died. Almost all in cardinal red, the 108 electors, one of whom will be selected the new Pontiff after days of balloting, file chanting into the Vatican as tens of thousands of the faithful gather in St. Peter’s square. One of a cordoned-off gaggle of journalists breathlessly narrates the odds on the new Pope as though at a European League football match. Inside a magnificently frescoed chamber, the cardinals–all old, all male–tap their pens in unconscious time. Suddenly we can hear their thoughts: Not me, Lord! Please, not me.
This unexpected abdication of ambition by the man who is selected after a stalemate between the top three rivals, is the premise of We Have a Pope. From its stately opening rhythms the movie slowly reveals itself to be a gentle comedy, of a type we know well: Waking Ned Divine, A Room with a View, the recent Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (still playing at Kahala). Habemus Papam (the Italian title, the words pronounced from on high to the masses in the square below) hews to the formula–take a beautiful, soul-stirring place, add a group of inbred delightful characters, then stir in a complication that takes an hour of screen time to resolve, wryly and humanely.
In this iteration by director/writer Nanni Moretti, all is humming along nicely, until it isn’t. The story takes a Being There twist (Peter Sellers as a childlike man whose simplicity is mistaken for greatness), then genuflects toward Mark Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper (boy king trades places with commoner, discovers self). And then, for the last half hour, it becomes something more than a comedy: a film that dares to leave the safety of its neat, tidy and well-made plot for the sort of high-wire walk that we usually only get from watching live theatre.
Good films in which religion plays a comic role are the rule rather than the exception, but We Have a Pope plays it both ways. Even that isn’t so unusual–you can wring a lot of cheap piety from a soaring soundtrack and a moment of awe at a sunrise–but this movie tries on and rejects the usual philosophical arguments about God and His/Her intentions like a quick-change artist. If you’re not Catholic–and I’m most definitely not, given my memories of being ambushed by priests and whacked by missals en route to public school–you don’t have to worry that you’ll find yourself being tricked by art into embracing a reactionary message. This film is for all of us. And it’s funny, and sumptuous to watch.
But, unlike the reluctant Pope, you’ll have to make up your mind fast: it’s only showing at the Doris Duke tonight, Wednesday (1pm and 7:30pm), and tomorrow (same showtimes). Afterwards, you can go out for coffee and dessert.