When word got out that satirical Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti was making a film set in the Vatican, opponents of the Roman Catholic hierarchy must have licked their lips.
This was the director who took on Italian Premier Silvio Berlusconi in his last movie, "Il Caimano" ("The Cayman"). How would he treat a church endowed with enormous wealth and power but tarnished by clerical sex abuse scandals and a money-laundering investigation into the Vatican bank?
Moretti decided to surprise them.
"People said to me, we thought you were going to denounce many aspects of the Vatican," Moretti told journalists Friday after the Cannes Film Festival screening of his film "Habemus Papam." "And that's the very reason I didn't do so.
"A lot of people expected me perhaps to do something different with this film. They expected something they had already seen, perhaps, and that was a good reason for me not to do what they were expecting.
"Habemus Papam" _ Latin for "We Have a Pope," the expression with which the election of a pontiff is announced _ is a surprisingly gentle comedy about a cardinal (played by 85-year-old French actor Michel Piccoli) who suffers an attack of stage fright when he is chosen as the next pontiff.
Panic-stricken, he flees the Vatican to wander the streets of Rome, where he meets shopgirls, bakers, cafe workers and a band of Chekhov-spouting actors.
Moretti plays a psychoanalyst brought into the Vatican to counsel the reluctant pontiff. He is left to fritter away the time with the sequestered cardinals, for whom he even arranges a clerical volleyball tournament.
"I was interested in having different worlds meet together, worlds that don't usually meet," Moretti said. "The world of religion and the theater or the cinema, do they have similarities?"
The film, one of 20 competing for Cannes' top prize, the Palme d'Or, has already opened in Italy. It was greeted with relief by church officials, who presumably feared it could have been worse.
"There's no sarcasm, no caricature," wrote Vatican Radio.
Moretti, who won the Palme d'Or in 2001 for "The Son's Room," said he is an atheist _ but wishes he weren't.
"I'm very sorry I'm not a believer, but that's how things are," said Moretti, who played a confused Catholic priest 25 years ago in "La Messa e' Finita" ("Mass is Over"), a ferocious and bitter look at Italian society. "I haven't believed for a very long time."
He said he wanted his new film to take the beliefs of the faithful seriously.
"I'm not against those in any way who are deep believers," he said. "When the pope says that the world needs a guide, the world needs someone who can provide love and understanding for all, the faithful in my film are full of enthusiasm and very pleased at the thought of this change. That is what I wanted to depict."