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Cannes Film Festival: Athiest filmmaker makes loving comedy about Catholic church?

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The one thing most people didn’t expect from Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti was for his movie about a panic-stricken, doubting pope to play nice with the Roman Catholic church.

Habemus Papam, which is Latin for “We have a pope” (the phrase used to introduce new pontiffs to the world), premiered at the Cannes Film Festival Friday to mixed reviews, but a surprising lack of controversy — particularly given the Vatican’s penchant for attacking films critical of the faith’s leadership.

If there was a shock, it was the self-proclaimed atheist filmmaker’s motivation … Moretti, who wrote, directed and co-stars in the film as a psychiatrist trying to help the in-over-his-mitre new pope (played by Michel Piccoli), said the movie takes aim in general at the institution for being out of touch, but he didn’t feel obliged to savage it over scandals that have already been well covered.

“Some people said, ‘Well, we thought you were going to denounce many aspects of the Vatican,’ and that was the very reason why I didn’t do so,” Moretti told reporters. “We’re all familiar, of course, with the problems and the scandals, pedophilia, within the Catholic Church. And above all the scandal that they covered up horrendous offenses and financial scandals.”

Even the Vatican, which was braced for more punishing criticism in the satiric film, seemed taken aback by the gentle ribbing it actually delivers. The director says the point is that non-believers, such as Moretti’s therapist, and the faith’s leaders, could learn from each other if they opened their minds.

In the film, the new pope sneaks out of the Vatican to live unrecognized for several days on the streets of Rome, while the scientific-minded therapist is forbidden from leaving the Vatican during the crisis and comes to enjoy the company of the other Cardinals.

“There are things in common we looked for when writing the screenplay,” Moretti said. “Even the symmetry – the pope flees into the city, and the psychoanalyst tries to solve the problem and finds himself imprisoned in the Vatican. It’s a parallel.”

Moretti is outspoken about being a lapsed Catholic, but said he respects those who do follow the faith. Still, he wanted to criticize the institution for being too closed-off from the problems of everyday people. “[Spanish filmmaker Luis] Bunuel used to say, ‘Thanks to God, I am an atheist.’ But that’s not the case with me. I’m very sorry I’m not a believer,” Moretti said.

If anything, he says his movie may be trying to speak for those who do believe: “I showed in my film numerous faithful in the square, and when the pope says there is need for great changes, everyone applauds, and when he says the world needs a guide, 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 possible change. That’s what I wanted to depict.”

For more film news, follow Anthony Breznican on Twitter @Breznican.