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When the College of Cardinals gathers in the Vatican to choose a new church leader - formally, the Bishop of Rome - it announces its selection with the Latin phrase Habemus papam, we have a pope. As it happens, that's also the title of a new film that's taken Europe by storm, and it opens today here in the U.S. Movie critic Bob Mondello says "We Have a Pope" is both humane and surprisingly funny.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Suppose when a cardinal steps out onto a balcony in St. Peter's Square to utter those fateful words...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Habemus papam.

MONDELLO: ...the gentle soul in white behind him develops stage fright? The abilities the cardinal see in him, he doesn't see. So he buries his head in his hands, mutters, I can't do this...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

MICHEL PICCOLI: (as pope) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: ...and runs down the hall. A sign of humility? Well, that's how it's spun by the Vatican's spokesman, who describes the new pope as having retired to his chambers for prayer and contemplation. But a psychiatrist is also called - wouldn't you know, a nonbeliever - who's intrigued by his assignment but hamstrung by instructions that he must not so much as mention dreams, fantasies, parents, childhood or heaven forbid, sex. So he cuts to the chase: Do you want to be pope?

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

NANNI MORETTI: (as psychiatrist) (Foreign language spoken)

PICCOLI: (as pope) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: I'm already pope is the reply...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

PICCOLI: (as pope) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: ...decided by the cardinals...

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

PICCOLI: (as pope) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: ...and by God. OK, that's one problem. Then comes a more worldly one. While taking a walk after a psychiatric session, the pope gets away from his handlers and disappears onto the streets of Rome. He still hasn't been announced, and now they've lost track of him. One of his Swiss Guards is quickly installed in the papal apartment, so the cardinals will see his shadow and not worry. Meanwhile, the new pontiff is off somewhere among his flock, incognito, practicing a speech he doesn't want to make.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

PICCOLI: (as pope) (Foreign language spoken)

MONDELLO: The great French actor Michel Piccoli is sweetly sympathetic as the man who would not be pope, and director Nanni Moretti has cast himself as the agnostic psychiatrist who kind of enjoys butting heads with cardinals. Though Moretti's films have ranged from wrenching drama to political satire, he's widely thought of as the Italian Woody Allen. And here, he leavens institutional stress with smiles, as when that Swiss Guard in the papal apartment cues up a record and soon has the cardinals clapping along contentedly and swaying like kids at a concert. The pontiff's mood must have lightened, they figure, as a lyric comes wafting down that means change, everything changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "WE HAVE A POPE")

MONDELLO: Oddly enough, miles away, the new pope is listening to this song but sung by a young woman on a street corner - evidence of God's grace, perhaps. There's nothing in "We Have a Pope" that's likely to offend, much that will amuse and also quite a bit of effective design work. It can't have been easy to create such a persuasive Sistine Chapel in a film studio or to populate it with quite so many robed cardinals. All of which makes the film feel more substantial than it really is. Despite moments that strain awfully hard to remind us that the church and its new leader are in crisis, basically habemus comoedia, we have a comedy. I'm Bob Mondello.

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