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Movie review: 'We Have a Pope'

There are crises of faith, and then there are crises of faith. In We Have a Pope, Michel Piccoli is having a doozy.

We Have a Pope

* **1/2

Directed by Nanni Moretti. With Michel Piccoli, Jerzy Stuhr, Renato Scarpa, Nanni Moretti, and Margherita Buy. In Italian with subtitles. Distributed by IFC Films. 1 hour, 45 mins. No MPAA rating (adult themes). Playing at: Ritz at the Bourse.

There are crises of faith, and then there are crises of faith. In We Have a Pope, Michel Piccoli is having a doozy.

Set in the cloistered opulence of the Vatican - and in the thrumming streets of Rome - Nanni Moretti's quietly subversive, wonderfully empathetic dramedy imagines a scenario in which the pontiff has died and the cardinals, in their cassocks and caps, go about electing a new leader.

Moretti, the Italian writer, director, and star, gently mocks the process from the get-go, showing the members of the College of Cardinals convening to make their choice. One cardinal starts unconsciously tapping his pen, then another, then another, until the rhythms of doubt fill the room with a percussive din.

And then come the interior monologues: Moretti's camera glides up close from one cardinal to the next, as they begin to pray - not for guidance in this deeply important decision, but entreating God that they not be chosen.

After several rounds of balloting, it is Piccoli's Cardinal Melville, so unassuming a figure that we hardly notice him in the early processions, who gets the nod. He will be the "incarnation of God on Earth."

And then, at the moment of truth, as he is about to be introduced to the throngs from a balcony overlooking St. Peter's Square, Melville panics. He bails.

And so, much of We Have a Pope, beautifully acted by the veteran French star and a supporting cast that includes the Polish actor Jerzy Stuhr (as the Vatican's spokesman) and Moretti (as a psychoanalyst brought in to counsel the stunned clergy), takes place on the run. Melville slips unrecognized into the crowds, wandering from department store to cafe to a hotel, where he encounters a traveling theater troupe. Theater, it turns out, was his first love.

We Have a Pope takes its shots at the institution of the Catholic Church, but this is by no means a scathing satire. It's more of a character study, insightful and nuanced, about a man grappling with a profound sense of inadequacy, questioning himself. In many ways, We Have a Pope recalls last year's Oscar winner, The King's Speech: Someone who doesn't feel up to the job fate has handed him, and then struggling to come to terms with it.

- Steven Rea