PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 May, 2011, 12:00am


Midway into our meeting on the balcony of a top-floor suite on Cannes' Croisette Boulevard, Nanni Moretti suddenly stands up and announces he has to visit the toilet. As the Italian filmmaker tries to open the balcony door, his interpreter laughs. 'He's human too,' she says.

This anecdote fits what Moretti is talking about before he hurried away: his latest film Habemus Papam, a competition entry at the Cannes Film Festival this year, depicts a newly elected pope - played by veteran French actor Michel Piccoli - as a self-doubting, troubled individual in despair after he is selected to be the world's number one Catholic and realises he can no longer enjoy the worldlier aspects of everyday life when his papacy begins.

'This film tells you sometimes in your life, you can say no - and it's possible to renounce a powerful role,' Moretti says. 'But it's not cowardice. It's a strength to recognise your own weakness.'

Piccoli's Cardinal Melville knows this all too well: when his colleagues head out to the Vatican balcony to tell the gathering crowd that a new pope has just been elected - the film's title is the Latin phrase ('We've got a pope') used on such an occasion - Melville suffers a breakdown, screaming, 'Help me! Help me! I can't do this,' as he races away to hide in an empty room in the vast complex of the Vatican.

Unable to pinpoint a physical ailment and in urgent need to present the new papa to the faithful and the world, the Vatican arrives at an extreme option: to have Melville meet with a psychoanalyst (played by Moretti) in the hope of tackling the issues which block Melville's way to accepting the exalted post.

True to Moretti's style, Habemus Papam is irreverent, showing his quirky vision of what happens within the highest echelons of the Catholic Church: cardinals are seen praying 'not me, Lord, not me' during the closed-door election of the pope.

'Some people are not happy because they said they cannot see faith in there,' Moretti says. 'But it's obvious the pope and the cardinals will have it, and I didn't need to show them praying. And I think some people complained the film is not descriptive of the real church. It's a service I did them by not showing them the real church - and I'm not even joking here.'

The Vatican refused to allow Moretti to film there - he had to construct remarkable replicas of its rooms for some sequences - while critics have questioned why the film doesn't touch on the controversies which have dogged the church for the past year, such as the handling of paedophilic priests and allegations of financial impropriety in the Vatican. His reply: he didn't want to repeat what had already been meticulously reported in the press.

Moretti, brought up in a Catholic family but an atheist for the past 40 years, says Habemus Papam is more universal than the story suggests, and the reason why he doesn't want to make a precise comparison between the film and the political situation in the Vatican and Italy. 'The scene of the empty balcony, with that black hole of a window in which power disappears into ... it's about the power of the world, and not just about the papacy.'