“The Young Pope”
The Pontiff as Monster
I have been waiting for “The Young Pope” to make its way to DVD because first, I was curious to see the HBO take on religion and even more curious to see Diane Keaton play a serious nun, Sister Mary. I have always loved her quirky humor and here was a role in which there would be none.
Religion wrestles with the same mysteries as do horror stories— death, the soul, the nature of evil. It inspires awe, an emotion very similar to terror. Catholicism is filled symbols and ritual which have been part of horror fiction and film forever. “The Young Pope” incorporates these elements into a beautifully sublime ten part series that is every bit as ludicrous as it is appealing to the eye.
The story begins after the election of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) as pope. He is a fresh-faced, little-known American. The church establishment, led by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), hopes he will be “a telegenic puppet” and a bridge between church conservatives and liberals. Cardinal Belardo chooses the name Pius XIII.
For many of the complacent cardinals, Pius XIII proves to be an unlucky number. The new pope is, a bit novel superficially— he’s hooked on Cherry Coke Zero and he’s pop-culture literate and in no way exercises papal stature. His beliefs turn out to be militantly conservative, if not medieval.
Pius declares that the church has become too tolerant and ecumenical and that it must not meet people where they are but withdraw and demand, without compromise, that the faithful come to it. He is also a tyrant. He has a priest break the seal of confession to share his cardinals’ secrets (it’s not a sin if the pope does it, he assures the confessor.) He does not accept the influence of the Curia and installs Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him as an orphan, as consigliere.
With his first public address to the crowd in St. Peter’s Square he tells the people that they have forgotten God and this his papacy will abandon the feel-good rhetoric of reaching out to one’s fellow man. He further says that only God matters and that the people will never become close to the Pope and further tells them that he does not know if they deserve a Pope like him. The creator and director Paolo Sorrentino gives us a drama of church maneuverings and of finding God through isolation.
When “The Young Pope” is not good, it is really bad and the some of the seriousness of the drama becomes laughable yet I found it impossible to turn away. When it’s good, it is still pretty bad but with gorgeous cinematography and a strange kind of weirdness. Mr. Sorrentino shots look like religious art— in both the vernacular and spiritual senses, it is something to see. There is something very current about this series, and not simply because Pius is a norm-breaking, reactionary American interloper, running against the establishment and seeking to gird his church with a big, beautiful wall (with a tiny door). “The Young Pope” is an echo of a larger phenomenon, of which our recent presidential election was just one part: the movement toward retreat and insularity in the West, an attitude that Pius sees as a holy mandate.
Jude Law acts with a geographically indeterminate American accent and plays Lenny/Pius as a man filled with holy anger, his eyes flashing cold lightning. Because he was abandoned as a child, his natural state is isolation, his faith a kind of misanthropy. He feels unloved by everyone and it is hard to tell whether or not he is a fanatic or a nonbeliever. He refuses to let his image be seen so no one outside of the Vatican knows what he looks like. His behavior changes to fit the needs of a given event.
Belardo “won” the papacy because a scheming College of Cardinals felt the young American would be easily manipulated into doing the Cardinals’ will. The series tries to invest the papacy with intrigue but perhaps because its content is so meaningful to believers, there are times that it is seen as blasphemous to some, a proclivity the series seems to be aware of and which it also seems to be intent on actually exploiting at times. We see that Pius XIII is not a liberal activist like real life Pope Francis, but is instead an almost reactionary conservative, one intent on his own ambitions.
The intrigues we see may strike some, both believers and non-believers, as potentially interesting, and some of the backstage maneuverings are compelling as well as disturbing. Pius has a number of nemeses at the Vatican, though of course they’re all extremely deferential to his face. These include the machinating Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who arranged for Pius’ election in the hopes he could control the pontiff and Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), Pius’ mentor who had hoped to be appointed to the papacy himself.
Some of the plotlines are unseemly side including an attempt to get Pius into a sexual relationship so that he can be blackmailed. In fact, blackmail is all over the place and the Pope himself engages in behavior that would probably send any lesser individual to the confessional booth. However, as the series moves forward, it becomes bizarre.
Some of the more outré content might be more understandable, or at least relatable, if we knew the intention of the series. The show is much too serious to be black comedy and its melodrama is so odd and hyperbolic that we unintentionally laugh.
Sorrentino’s use of the grotesque at times is just too much but it generally serves him well in this comic approach to the traditions of the Papal state. The miniseries is galvanized by a commandingly arch Jude Law as the just been elected Pope Pius XIII. Not only is he the first American pope, he’s only 47 years old, and he is arrogant, whimsical and hilariously destructive. He comes across as a borderline anti-Christ not only in his power-mad dreams, but in all his dealings with the cardinals and the Curia. He is very handsome and he refuses to let the canny head of Vatican marketing (Cecile de France) use his image or even show his face to the public, all to increase the air of mystery and power surrounding him. In his first homily to the overflowing crowds in St. Peter’s, which he insists on holding at night, the clear sky is streaked by sinister lightning and the faithful are drenched in a sudden downpour. Yet this is nothing compared to the future he them as Catholics who need to think only of God, 24 hours a day. His message has nothing in common with the love and brotherhood preached by the current Pope Francis.
His main antagonist is Cardinal Voiello, the Secretary of State. Though he’s the most powerful man in the Vatican, we see that he’s a good man who loves the Naples soccer team and secretly takes care of a boy in a wheelchair. He also has sexual fantasies over a statue of the Venus of Willendorf. When he pits his human warmth against Lenny’s icy control freak, it’s clear who is likely to be the winner. Jude Law’s Pontiff is a megalomaniac who is the head of a billion Catholics around the world. He is both enigmatic and eerily composed and incomprehensible.
Vatican City, whose marbled halls and stunning statues and architecture acquire a sense of timeless beauty is stunning throughout the ten episodes.