The Young Pope
HBO limited series, Sundays & Mondays (January 15-February 27)
Written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino
The Young Pope, widely greeted and at the same time widely dismissed as merely a visual spectacle, actually accomplishes something considerably deeper. It does for the papacy what Bernardo Bertolucci’s The Last Emperor (1987) did for the decaying Ching dynasty and what Roberto Rossellini’s The Rise of Louis XIV (1966) did for the Sun King. In a lavish, slow-motion ritual where the protagonist is encased in a cocoon of surreal pomp and majesty, The Young Pope brings to bear the full panoply of cinema to ask how human existence created such a bizarrely inhuman situation.
“Who are you, really, Lenny?” the young Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) is asked more than once, and that’s the question neither he nor the audience can answer. Lenny Belardo, as his old friends continue to call him unless he petulantly demands they address him as Your Holiness, gains the papacy through a combination of cross-purposes among the most powerful cardinals and their assumption that once elected, such an inexperienced, pliant Pope—and an American to boot–will bend to them. But Pius XIII defies all expectations. The antics he pulls as the most scandalous Pope in history (a major feat) work to keep us guessing at every twist and turn of a complicated, elusive plot even the Jesuits couldn’t unravel, although potentially they could have created it.
Although taken generally to be a satire on the Catholic hierarchy and its machinations—like a Vatican House of Cards, as the Times critic pointed out—the real issue is about how the Church, and its anointed leader, relates to God, if at all. That a TV series can broach religious metaphysics without inducing torpor is a miracle in itself. I believe that more than japery is intended. But what, exactly?
Kings, popes, and emperors stand above and outside everyday life. If their elevation is also a curse, if their power carries excessive burdens with it, no one pities them. Figures of might fulfill imaginary, some say mythic, needs. Standing in awe is such a need, and although it wasn’t filmed in the Vatican (no TV or movie crews are allowed access into the Holy See, a longstanding prohibition) The Young Pope was made on a titanic budget involving a group of international media corporations like Sky and Canal. To give some idea of the mega-De Mille scale we’re talking about, a full-sized replica of the Sistine Chapel was built, including 52,000 square feet of painted surface to duplicate the frescoes of Michelangelo and Raphael. The papal palace wasn’t available, but the creative team made do with a splendiferous Medici villa and various stand-ins for cloisters, colonnades, gardens, reception rooms, chapels, private quarters, and so on. Aerial shots of Vatican City and St. Peter’s are interwoven to give a seamless sense of verisimilitude—you won’t spot the fakes unless you happen to have dined personally with the Pope or slept over in his guest room.
The sumptuous setting is also an editorial point of view, not only about our need for awe. There is also the need to worship power, to embody God in a human being, and to feel anchored by a sense of higher purpose, spirit, the soul, Heaven and Hell—the whole religious potpourri, not all of it fragrant. The Young Pope is ambiguous, rooting for its hero while undercutting his shaky faith. The Vatican is rife with adultery, furtive threeways, secret homosexuality, unconfessed alcoholism, an affair between a monsignor and the wife of the captain of the Swiss Guards—there’s a lot of soap opera to watch between Masses. (Fans of telenovelas could have told us that.) If the early Christians saw themselves as God’s righteous army bringing down Roman debauchery, by the Middle Ages woodcuts of nuns and priests fornicating put the lie to those fantasies.
The fleshpots are at the boil, but Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino also grapples with the future of God in our fallen times. The figure of a fictitious Pope who claims he is God (or Christ or a saint) only seems preposterous until you consider Church history and the power the papacy granted itself to say who is holy and who isn’t. Compared to God, this Pope acts more mysterious and high-handed, which is the central joke if you view the show through the lens of comedy.
The first episode begins with the newly elected Pius XIII (the unlucky number is intentional) making his first address to the throngs in St. Peter’s Square. The faithful cheer wildly—Pius is young (for a Pope), glamorous, a rock star—but the crowd shifts into stunned silence as the Holy Father fervently advocates for contraception, abortion, women priests, gay marriage, and the free enjoyment of masturbation. It’s only a dream sequence, and Lenny wakes up in a cold sweat. But these are the issues that will keep him and everyone around him in a sweat as the episodes unfold.
At one point the prime minister of Greenland visits for a papal audience, which begins with Lenny saying matter-of-factly, “I’m incredibly handsome, I know, but let’s set that aside.” He doesn’t mean what he says. Pius revels in his personal beauty, staring into mirrors with a look that could be pure narcissism or, just as possibly, the gaze of someone who doesn’t feel completely real. Jude Law has never looked better, and more than ever his built-in sneer, a touch of menace marring the perfect façade, spices up his performance. I saw his Hamlet twice in 2009 and felt that Law was a lightweight who had been directed with astuteness to build a character out of whatever ability he had. The type of the movie-star Hamlet has been around a long time, and that worked in Law’s favor, but unfortunately the voice was a movie voice, not strong enough to command the stage.
Then two years ago I went to his Henry V in London, again with the skilled Michael Grandage directing, and a big change had occurred. Law had obviously been serious about his acting potential, and there was heroic range and a much bigger voice. Now he’s grown even more, inhabiting 46-year-old Lenny Belardo with self-aware charisma but also psychological undertones that bounce like a stray basketball around the court. Pius’s fickleness unsettles everyone chasing after him. With eyes that can shift from doe-like to daggers in an instant, Law exudes the ultimate caprice of the all-powerful. He swings like an unhinged pendulum between arrogance, self-doubt, piety, charm, cruelty, and aloofness, with the balance of these traits being negative.
He puts his hand up a woman’s blouse to fondle her breasts at one point and has erotic dreams. This is a Felliniesque papacy, imagined with surreal skews of behavior and jump cuts into grotesquerie. Reviving Fellini when you aren’t Fellini runs the risk of becoming stale or devolving into a circus. There’s an acre of lurid window-dressing to gawk at, but let me argue that it’s all in the service of Sorrentino’s disturbing conception of an updated struggle of the soul that proves inescapable, for us as much as for Lenny. This Vatican is an hallucination as vivid as Heaven or Hell.
Satires by their very nature are attacks, and The Young Pope fits the bill with constant pokes at the Vatican hierarchy. Intricate as the plotting is—I’m speaking of only Episodes 1-7, the ones aired to date—there’s a conventional villain in Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando, outfitted with a malignant black cheek mole), whose Secretary of State of the Vatican has survived politically, as he freely confesses, by knowing everyone’s secrets and using them as leverage. Voiello goes to ridiculous lengths to undermine Pius, as when he blackmails Esther, the young wife who cheated on her Swiss Guard husband, into seducing the Pope. Voiello watches from a distance with a cameraman and a lip reader to record every lascivious detail. But Pius, despite having Esther guide his hand to her breasts, resists temptation.
Here things get interesting in a way that pertains to the whole series. Voiello is so impressed by Pius’s virtue that he destroys the damning photos and remorsefully grovels to kiss the Pope’s shoes (a gesture Lenny rejects with contempt). Besides reminding gazers of how handsome he is, Lenny tells Voiello and other schemers that he’s smarter than any of them, too. He creates an air of mysterious knowledge by cheating—he gets the priest who hears all the Vatican confessions to reveal everything he hears, and the poor simple soul has no alternative but to betray everyone’s secrets. Even Voiello hasn’t figured out this ploy. Through various other gambits, such as not allowing himself to be photographed and refusing to permit gewgaws from the Vatican gift shop to bear his likeness, Pius keeps everyone guessing. He brings in Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the old nun from the orphanage where his parents abandoned him, as his only real confidante, and she resolutely holds that he’s a saint.
Beyond the machinations, the young Pope is engaged in a struggle to make God reveal himself. He promises Esther, who is sterile, that God will give her a child if her faith is strong enough. In Episode 5 this actually happens. Not only is Esther pregnant, but as she and Lenny pray in the garden, an Easter lily sitting nearby suddenly opens. This interjection of the divine/surreal places Lenny’s behavior in a new light. He may actually be sainted or, as he sometimes suspects, the return of Christ.
If so, then The Young Pope is delivering a variant of Dostoevsky’s Grand Inquisitor scene in The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan Karamazov recites to his younger brother Aloysha, who has become a novice monk, a poem about Christ returning to Earth in Seville. After performing some miracles and attracting the worship of the people, Christ is seized by the Inquisition and burned at the stake. The Grand Inquisitor visits him on the eve of his execution to explain why this happened. Dostoevsky outlines a powerful atheist’s creed in which the Grand Inquisitor, having no belief in God, holds that the highest value in life is freedom, which Jesus won for himself when he denied the temptations of Satan in the desert.
The Grand Inquisitor is also free, but he enforces compulsory worship of God among the common people, those who cannot handle freedom and must be constrained to do what’s best for them. God is best even as a lie; he gives life meaning before the nihilism of death is faced. Remembering that one of Satan’s temptations was to offer Jesus dominion over all the kingdoms of the Earth, Lenny occupies a unique position, being an atheist who has dedicated himself to proving God’s existence. To all appearances he has given into the temptation to hold dominion, if not over kingdoms, over all Catholics.
In Dostoevsky’s scene, the Church is too corrupt to tolerate the Redeemer, and Sorrentino leans toward the same conclusion, but not in a pat way. Perhaps a saint has returned to put the Church on trial, but Pius’s rule is destroying the Church’s image and along the way its finances. Disruption and chaos are his modus operandi. The rock-star image was a smokescreen, because God has instructed Lenny—or Lenny has deluded himself into thinking so—to cut through the Church with a scythe. Pius declares that compromise and ecumenism are killing Catholicism. With a zealot’s fury he demands the expulsion of all homosexual priests, excommunication for any woman who has an abortion under all circumstances, total fealty to himself, and more. In a scene where he grants an audience to the young, cocky Italian prime minister—clearly modeled on the real-life Matteo Renzi (the series was filmed before Renzi’s abrupt resignation in December)—Pius smilingly presents a list of written demands that would, in essence, restore the papacy to its medieval status as a worldly power.
The prime minister acts amused and then contemptuous of such presumption. Without warning Lenny pounces; a glint-eyed Pope is facing down a political adversary mano a mano. Pius threatens to issue an edict prohibiting Catholics from voting, and as of Episode 7 we await to see if he carries out his threat and to what surreal lengths Sorrentino intends to go. We’ve already had a kangaroo air-lifted into the papal gardens so that Pius can shout at it to “Jump” (presumably a test of his supernatural power). The ‘roo stares blankly the first time it’s yelled at but jumps on command the second time. Whether the Church ultimately balks or jumps on command remains up in the air, with the promise of more riddles to come in Season 2.
Consistency isn’t paramount for Sorrentino—his tactic is to plunge us directly into Lenny’s inner turmoil—but there’s a broad suggestion, as we near the end of Season 1, that holiness is real. Montage can be more powerful than words, and as Esther gives birth onscreen, we cut to a debauched cardinal (Lenny’s childhood friend and fellow orphan Dussolier) in the throes of a threesome with a young man and woman, and a third visual track shows Lenny in the midst of a papal ceremony in the Sistine Chapel. Wearing a mask-like expression to appear as much like an icon as a living man, and weighed down with gold-rich vestments suitable for King Tut, Pius embodies a world that ritualizes God while the flesh demands its due “born between urine and feces,” not to mention other bodily fluids.
My head swims with absurdist and existential possibilities, but to date there’s so much material in The Young Pope to bemuse us that the show has turned into a satisfying, if enigmatic experience. Would Christ return today with the iron fist of the Grand Inquisitor? Can Catholics be shocked into losing their complacency and taking God to be a life-and-death matter? Perhaps the cosmic balloon will burst to the sound of divine guffaws. Only Lenny seems to know, and he’s not saying.