The central character in Nanni Moretti's "Habemus Papam" is a Roman Catholic cardinal seized with faith-testing panic when he is selected as the next pope.
Moretti is both a confirmed atheist and a confident, critically lauded filmmaker. And yet he says the film is _ like all his movies _ autobiographical.
"Even if they don't speak about my life, they represent what I am at that moment," Moretti said during an interview at the Cannes Film Festival. "They always reflect a feeling that I have at that moment, a feeling that grows and leads to a story and characters."
In the case of "Habemus Papam" _ Latin for "We Have a Pope," the expression with which the election of a pontiff is announced _ that feeling was "a sense of inadequacy ... the desire to be somewhere else, the difficulty you have in playing the role for which you have been chosen, or which you have chosen yourself."
It's a feeling many viewers will recognize _ but a bold stroke to invest that anxiety in the pontiff-elect, a man the faithful believe has been chosen by God to lead the church.
The on-screen pope, played by 85-year-old French actor Michel Piccoli, rushes away from the Vatican balcony where he is due to bless the crowds gathered below. Resisting the ministrations of a psychoanalyst played by Moretti, he escapes and wanders the streets of Rome, meeting with ordinary people and reassessing his life.
His abandoned fellow cardinals, stranded in the Vatican, struggle to pass the time until Moretti's character organizes a clerical volleyball tournament.
Moretti said he wanted to humanize these remote and mysterious church figures, seen at the film's start marching through the Vatican in crimson-robed glory, but soon revealed to be every bit as frail and human as anyone in the audience.
"The pope is shown as a man," Moretti said. "Even though he is considered the incarnation of God on Earth, he is a man, and a man who is able to say no. I also wanted to make the cardinals more human _ these little children who are stuck in the conclave."
The film, one of 20 competing for the top prize at this year's festival, has already opened in Italy to a mix of praise, disappointment and relief.
The relief came from the church, which had feared Moretti, who sent up scandal-magnet Italian premier Silvio Berlusconi in "Il Caimano" ("The Cayman"), might wield his satirical scalpel. The disappointment came from secularists, sorry he wasn't more savage about a church that has been tarnished by revelations of clerical sex abuse and a money-laundering investigation into the Vatican bank.
"These people would like to know from my movie something that they already know," Moretti said. "They would like to see something they have already seen and be told a story they have read already in the newspapers and seen on TV. I preferred to make a movie that was about the questions.
"When I make a movie I don't think about the audience, about any particular audience _ believers or psychoanalysts or the right wing or the left wing," he said. "I do what I want to do."
Moretti is clearly a director with confidence in his own imagination. The film's sumptuously detailed behind-the-scenes depiction of the Vatican took less research than one might think.
"I invented it," said the Italian director. "That's my job. I did see documentaries that inspired me for the procession when you see all the cardinals going to the Sistine Chapel. The rest was invented."
It convinces in part because few have seen behind the Vatican's closed doors. In the age of the Internet, Moretti wonders how long that mystery will remain intact.
"Maybe you'll have webcams inside the Sistine Chapel next time," he said.
The 57-year-old Moretti is a Cannes favorite, and won the top trophy, the Palme d'Or, a decade ago with his story of family loss "The Son's Room."
But he does not radiate delight as he sits fidgeting on a hotel balcony high above the teeming Croisette, Cannes' seafront boulevard.
"I'm not a great traveler," Moretti said. "And going to Cannes is not traveling. It's craziness."