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CANNES, France (Reuters) - The Vatican got a dose of Freudian analysis at Cannes on Friday with "Habemus Papam," a gentle Italian comedy about a newly elected pope who gets cold feet when the weight of his responsibility dawns on him.
The film by Italian director Nanni Moretti drew laughter and healthy applause from critics on day three of the Cannes film festival, where the official selection of movies has so far leaned in the direction of dark realism and social commentary.
Farcical and humane, Habemus Papam (We Have a Pope) casts wide open the door of the notoriously secretive Holy See, as red-robed cardinals converge in a locked chamber to elect a pope under the expectant gaze of millions of Catholics.
When the votes are counted and white smoke billows from the Vatican's dome, the pope-elect played by French actor Michel Piccoli, 85, is led to a balcony to address the faithful -- only to freeze up before his momentous task, paralyzed by anxiety.
"The image that struck me the most was that of a newly elected pope a few meters from the (Vatican's) balcony, unable to advance," Piccoli told journalists after the screening.
"The role reinforced my conviction to dare to talk about one's anxieties -- this pope is an exceptional man."
Panicked by the break in protocol, Vatican officials take the unorthodox step of bringing in Rome's top psychiatrist, played by Moretti himself, to explore the pope's psyche before a room full of cardinals in one of the movie's funniest scenes.
Despite its irreverent tone -- at one point, Moretti organizes a volleyball tournament among cardinals in the Vatican's courtyard -- Habemus Papam steers clear of dealing directly with touchy issues that have rocked the Catholic world in recent years.
Moretti only alludes indirectly to controversies such as sexual abuse by Catholic priests in one scene, where a Vatican official advises the psychiatrist not to delve into the pope's childhood or "repressed desires."
"We all know the scandals at the Vatican, the pedophiles and financing issues, but this is not a story about that," Moretti, a self-proclaimed atheist, said at a news conference. "This is a story about my Vatican."
With its gentle treatment of the Roman Catholic Church, the movie seemed unlikely to garner protests on religious grounds at the annual film festival.
Moretti's film, which features extensive footage of the Vatican and St. Peter's Square, was shot both on location and in studios for many of the interior scenes. "The Vatican put no obstacles in our way. Neither did they support us," he said.
Over-the-top in the tradition of Italian farces, Habemus Papam has moments of engaging absurdity, as when the pope, who has fled into the streets of Vatican City, tells an indifferent baker that he suffers from a "deficit of parental care."
But as it tries to hold up its central conceit, some critics said it dragged in parts, raising early doubts that it could receive the Golden Palm prize for best picture at the end of the festival, which runs May 11-22.
Moretti won the coveted Palme d'Or in 2001 with "The Son's Room."
Editing by Paul Casciato