The director: Nanni Moretti (Italy)
The talent: As in most of his films, writer-director-producer Moretti also takes one of the leading roles, but the film is principally a showcase for 85 year-old French legend Michel Piccoli, playing the Pope of the title. A previous Best Actor winner at Cannes (for 1980′s “Leap Into the Void”) who has worked with everyone from Buñuel to Godard to Hitchcock, the veteran’s very name brings a kind of just-add-water authority to proceedings. Co-producer Domenico Procacci, meanwhile, has been behind a number of recent Italian crossover hits, including “Gomorrah” and “The Consequences of Love.”
The pitch: “‘The King’s Speech’ goes to the Vatican!” is how many pundits responded to the synopsis for “We Have a Pope” (or “Habemus Papam,” to use its more evocative Latin title) — and glib as such comparisons tend to be, it’s easy to see where they’re coming from in this case. Moretti’s comedy-drama stars Piccoli as a frail cardinal facing a crisis of confidence when, against his wishes, he is elected Pope. Moretti plays the kindly
speech therapist psychiatrist assigned to help him accept his responsibilities. The film has predictably aroused controversy within Italy’s Roman Catholic set, but it doesn’t appear to be particularly contentious material.
The pedigree: Moretti’s relationship with Cannes dates back further than any of his Competition rivals save Terrence Malick — coincidentally enough, both men first competed for the Palme d’Or in 1978, when Moretti was just 24 years old. Since then, he’s amassed five Competition entries, winning Best Director in 1994 for “Dear Diary” and the Palme in 2001 for “The Son’s Room.”
The buzz: The cat’s already out of the bag on this one — as the only Competition title to be released in its home country prior to the festival, Italian critics and the trades have already had their say. Reviews so far range from the polite to the tepid. Variety’s Jay Weissberg complains of the film’s conservatism and “toothlessness,” veering between “occasional smiles and outright pretension”; The Hollywood Reporter’s Deborah Young echoes that the film “lacks bite,” but is a little more forgiving, declaring it a “well-written, surprisingly mainstream comedy” until a disappointing finale. Both critics, however, offer extravagant praise (“consummate brilliance,” “rapturous”) for Piccoli’s performance. Heading into Cannes, it’s fair to say the reviews have cooled anticipation considerably.
The odds: Moretti wouldn’t be the most popular addition to the exclusive two-Palme club, and his latest appeared too soft a lob for the award even before the so-so reviews came in. However, if the film is all but out of the running for the top prize (sharp pundit Neil Young gives it odds of 100-1), Piccoli enters the festival as the runaway favorite for Best Actor — for reasons both sentimental and performance-based.
Check out the film’s Italian trailer (sorry, no subtitles):