What Catholic viewers make of the gently satiric seriocomedy "We Have a Pope" ("Habemus Papam") (Sundance Selects) will largely depend on their reaction to the sight of teams of cardinals from the world's various continents competing against each other in a volleyball tournament.
In addition to typifying the pitch of humor in this Italian import, the series of scenes devoted to that elaborate visual gag also are indicative of the film's overall strengths and flaws: Harmlessly humorous -- if undeniably silly -- to start off with, they carry on far too long, signaling the artistic exhaustion which eventually causes the proceedings as a whole to sputter and stall.
Things begin more promisingly, with scenes of an imaginary conclave during which voice-over narration allows us to hear each cardinal's fervent prayer that he not be the man selected. Eventually, a winning candidate does emerge, however, in the person of good-hearted but timid Cardinal Melville (Michel Piccoli).
Initially, the new pontiff accepts his election, albeit reluctantly. But then, overcome by the prospective burden of the office, and a sense of his own inadequacy, he balks before giving his first public blessing from the famous balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square. Or, to put it more graphically, he freaks out, gives vent to a violent scream, and runs away.
As the world waits -- the bewildered disappointment of the faithful is portrayed quite poignantly -- an eminent but nonbelieving psychiatrist (Nanni Moretti) is smuggled into the Vatican to treat this least typical of patients. He fails spectacularly.
Further complicating matters, the object of his attentions subsequently escapes the sacred confines and seeks some form of guidance by wandering the streets of Rome and mingling with the Eternal City's ordinary citizens.
The resulting delay in the resolution of their papal problem leaves the recent electors with time on their hands, and allows the therapist the opportunity to organize the aforementioned sporting event -- about which he becomes flagrantly obsessive.
Moretti, who also directed and co-wrote (with Francesco Piccolo and Federica Pontremoli), avoids any mean-spirited attack on the church, an approach for which he's been taken to task by some secular critics. They seem to have wanted him to go for the sex-abuse jugular, and have interpreted his lack of rancor as a symptom of pusillanimity.
Early on, Moretti garners some amusement from the contrast between the shrink's secular assumptions and the faith-based attitudes prevailing at the Holy See as well from a range of human foibles against which high-ranking churchmen must be presumed to be no more proof than anyone else. But by the time his protagonist goes on the lam, Moretti has clearly run out of inspiration.
Both costumes and settings seem to reflect an awareness of real-life ecclesiastical garb and architecture and contribute to a convincing atmosphere. Other touches of realism include footage of the 2005 conclave that saw the election of Pope Benedict XVI as well as a storyline reminiscent of the early life of Blessed John Paul II: Like the young Karol Wojtyla, the fictional pope here, we learn, once thought of becoming an actor.
There are a few vague references in the dialogue to major reforms of which the church is said to stand in need. Since these are never specified, however, each audience member is free to interpret what they might entail according to his or her own theological predilections.
No volleyball for prelates over 80, perhaps?
In Italian. Subtitles.
The film contains much ecclesiastically themed humor that some may find distasteful, at least one use of the F-word and a fleeting reference to sexuality. The Catholic News Service classification is L -- limited adult audience, films whose problematic content many adults would find troubling. Not rated by the Motion Picture Association of America.