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Holy Shit! Habemus Papam

Michel Piccoli in We Have a Pope
Michel Piccoli in We Have a Pope

At last, the white smoke wafts up from the Vatican chimney, and the exultant masses cheer Habemus Papam. Translation: We Have a Pope, a sly new comedy by Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti. The premise is delicious, like Dostoyevsky’s “Grand Inquisitor” filmed as broad satire by the late Hal Ashby: The Pope has died, and the international gathering of cardinals — each of whom fervently begs God not to be chosen — votes in the long-shot Cardinal Melville, played to sympathetic perfection by French actor Michel Piccoli.

This newly ordained Pope freaks out just before taking the balcony to greet the thousands of faithful gathered below in St. Peter’s Square. His eyes bug and he screams with unbearable anguish: “Help me! I can’t do this!” It’s a papal anxiety attack! He flees down the hall and into seclusion.

Needless to say, the biblical shit hits the papal fan. A psychoanalyst is brought in, hilariously, to no avail; they try the psychoanalyst’s estranged wife, also an analyst. Leaving her office, the Pope suddenly vanishes, alone, into the secular buzz of the city, where he wanders anonymously. He lets a room. He acclimates into his popelessness, navigating the quotidian drear of our modern malaise. He achieves something approaching grace, which is just the flip side of despair.

In an acting career spanning four decades, Piccoli has worked with such legendary directors as Hitchcock, Buñuel, Godard and Renoir. In Habemus Papam Piccoli’s performance is a tour-de-force. With his beefy, kind face and ungainly gravitational girth (like a papal Tony Soprano), he evokes exquisite moments with the tiniest gestures: a twitch of a grin, an eye-flash of loathing that softens into acceptance. Once Picolli’s Pope enters the world, disrobed of his supreme pontiff’s identity, we see — as we follow his pilgrim’s progress through shopping malls and boarding houses — that his indecision and reluctance are anchored in a tragic understanding of his spiritual office; in a very real way, he now carries the weight of the world. Piccoli gives the movie a depth and complexity it might otherwise have lacked, and his final scene is shattering.

We Have a Pope opens Friday, June 22, at the Bijou; bijou-cinemas.com