Director Nanni Moretti's movie about a panic-stricken pope who can't cope with the enormity of his task is a hit across Italy. Within the Catholic Church, the film has drawn some criticism, though not the anathema that "The Da Vinci Code" has incurred, and even a little praise.
"Habemus Papam" _ Latin for "We Have a Pope," the expression with which the election of a pontiff is announced to the world _ opened April 15 to a strong showing at the Italian box office. The movie will be shown in competition at the Cannes Film Festival next month.
Avvenire, the influential newspaper of the Italian Catholic bishops' conference, printed a letter by a Vatican expert last week calling for a boycott of the movie, saying "hands off the pope" and asking readers "Why should we finance those who offend our religion?"
But no such call has come from Vatican officials. And Avvenire itself said in its own review that the film is well-made and clever, though it faults Moretti for representing "the death of an old and confused church" and missing the crucial point of the church's faith and communion with Christ.
Some Catholic commentators praised Moretti for offering a humane portrayal of a troubled pope, played by the 85-year-old French actor Michel Piccoli.
"There's no sarcasm, no caricature," wrote Vatican Radio.
The movie opens with scenes of a papal funeral _ including footage from the real funeral of John Paul II in 2005 _ and subsequent conclave. Upon his election as pontiff, the cardinal played by Piccoli panics, shouting desperately and running away as soon as the words "Habemus Papam" are pronounced from a St. Peter's balcony to an awaiting crowd.
"A quality is seen in me which I don't possess," the pope tells a psychoanalyst, played by Moretti, who is brought inside the Vatican to help the paralyzed pontiff. "I can't do it!" he screams at another point, under mounting pressure. Before long, the pope, whose identity is not yet public, escapes the Vatican and starts roaming the streets of Rome looking for answers.
While the world awaits, cardinals and the psychoanalyst alike are sequestered inside the Vatican, occupying themselves with games of cards and even a surreal volleyball tournament.
Moretti is best known for political satire, as in his latest movie "Il Caimano" ("The Cayman") on Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi, or surreal stories of personal obsession mixed with social commentary. He himself played a confused Catholic priest 25 years ago in "La Messa e' Finita" ("Mass is Over"), a ferocious and bitter look at Italian society.
Moretti maintains he did not want to make a movie on the Vatican.
"It is a movie on the difficulties of meeting other people's expectations," the director said. "It's the story of a man who comes to terms with his limits."
While the Vatican spokesman is often seen lying _ if pressed by the unprecedented circumstance of a missing pope _ the film's representation of the college of cardinals is likely to have pleased the Vatican.
The cardinals are depicted as mostly hopeless, harmless old men who worry over their pope, rather than the scheming, powerful and politically savvy princes of the church they are sometimes made out to be.
"The image Moretti gives of the church is good-natured, there's nothing confrontational or caustic," wrote Catholic author Vittorio Messori, noting that Moretti does not cite the sex scandal that has plagued the church or a money-laundering investigation that has targeted the Vatican's bank.
Still, some Catholic commentators have questioned aspects of the movie, such as the volleyball scene or even having an adequate pope as the premise of the movie.
But such criticism pales next to the call to boycott "The Da Vinci Code" by a Vatican official years ago. That film, based on Dan Brown's novel, depicted the conservative Catholic organization Opus Dei as a murderous sect. Its sequel "Angels & Demons" was also criticized by the Vatican newspaper as inaccurate, if harmless.