Nanni Moretti’s gentle, wayward movie has a wonderful central premise: A new Pope, Cardinal Melville (the one and only Michel Piccoli, magnificent), his very name a nod to Bartleby the Scrivener, is chosen to succeed a dead one, but it turns out that he doesn’t want the job. He is depressed and volatile, so the Vatican takes the desperate measure of bringing the very best shrink in Rome (Moretti), to try to talk some sense into him.

One expects what follows to be a mordant culture clash between two opposite philosophies of life, faith and reason; but Moretti chooses to meander in all kinds of amusing directions instead. I suspect that fleshing out that premise (faith v. psychoanalysis) would have entailed too much intellectual rigor, so he is content to let it drop and give us a very cute satire instead. As long as you don’t scratch too deeply, the movie is funny and very enjoyable. But Moretti makes strange, unconvincing choices, and although he employs that wonderful bittersweet Italian humor, sprinkled in sadness and steeped in absurdity, the cuteness overstays its welcome.

In this quirky fable, the Vatican is populated by cherubic cardinals from all over the world, all of them secretly praying not to get chosen as the pope. It is an opulent fortress, completely detached from the real world, but that has no resemblance whatsoever to the seat of forbidding, unyielding, malevolent power that the actual place really is. The first big disappointment in the plot comes when Moretti decides that no cardinal is worldly or human enough to want to be the next Pope, an office that not only carries unfettered mythical power but infinite pomp and adulation; it is, in short, the greatest kiss ass in the universe. Who would not want to be considered infallible? Who would not want the blind love and devotion of billions of people? Unless he is being inscrutably wry, I find it impossible to believe that not one of his  pudgy cardinals covets that position: the closest there is to God on Earth. Since Moretti seems to be playing the sweet card with a straight face, the movie makes no sense. His insistence on being idiosyncratic but not rigorous reminds me of late Woody Allen: a couple of underdeveloped great ideas, tied together by a flimsy plot.

The shrink is brought in to help, but he is not allowed to really probe the Pope’s subconscious (the Church does not believe in one). Hilariously, his conversations with the Pope are attended by all the cardinals. But instead of fighting the stringent rules, he gives up immediately, and the Pope needs to be farmed out to therapy with the shrink’s ex-wife, for the sole reason that the plot needs him to escape the Vatican. One expects this man to learn something in his anonymous journey through Rome, which has some very moving moments. Particularly beautifully rendered is the Pope’s feeling of anonymity. He even walks around the waiting pilgrims in St. Peter’s Square, and nobody knows who he is: an amazing feeling of freedom. But it’s a collection of rambling scenes, rather than a sustained character story.

The public relations arm of Moretti’s Vatican, which in reality is an incredibly sophisticated operation, is represented by one chubby bumbling bureaucrat. I understand this is a fable, but the sins of the Vatican, all of them sins of power, are too satanic to give it such a fairy tale treatment.

To Moretti’s credit, this movie feels less solipsistic and much more substantial than any recent Woody Allen film; the acting is excellent and the cinematography is wonderful. There are many delightful moments; nice, well observed little metaphors, like the Vatican stonewalling any kind of information as it struggles to deal with the reluctant Pope. They sequester the shrink and cut him off from normal life, because that is how they are used to dealing with things, by lying and blocking information. There is a lovely moment when Moretti plays Mercedes Sosa singing Todo Cambia, “everything changes”, which is the idea at the core of this slight movie: that everything changes, except for the Vatican. The cherubic cardinals sway to the music but are oblivious to its message.

But then the film meanders into irrelevant metaphors. Turns out the Pope is a failed actor and he follows a troupe that’s doing Chekhov. Yes, there is an interesting parallel between Papal spectacle and the theater, and I assume Moretti wants to replicate Chekhov’s masterful wistfulness about the futility of life, but this too is wasted. The shrink decides to organize a sweet but ludicrous volleyball tournament among the Cardinals, in which they become competitive for once (as if) and they enjoy themselves. Moretti is either unwilling or incapable of staying close to his own tracks, and the movie fizzles out.

The ending is rather abrupt and bracing. For once, the Pope really talks to the people, not at them from the balcony at St. Peter’s Square. But Moretti never really explores this adamant man’s character. He may be implying that this Pope has sensibly decided that the world does not need a pope any more, but, like this uneven, idiosyncratic movie, this seems to be the result more of a whimsical, personal tantrum than a rebellious stance against absolute power.