Ladies and gentlemen, meet Pius XIII:
So, granted, the bar for small-screen papal shenanigans isn’t set incredibly high. We have the sex-and-swordplay disaster that was The Borgias*…
…the James-Cromwell-starring Pius XII two-part biopic – you know, the one that decided the best way to address claims of the Pope’s indifference to Jews during the second world war was to have him stare dramatically at the sky as often as possible – with or without complementary birds flying from his hands…
…to the definitely less cheesy (though still mostly awkward) Jon Voight outing, where he convincingly played St. John Paul II and won himself an Emmy.
Despite this flock of TV-turkeys it’s gotta be said: the Vatican is potentially the most filmable place on Earth. Where else are you going to get the arches, the art, the drapery, the veritable (and venerable) army of men befrock’d in dramatic, flowy robes? It has all the colour of Manhattan (or Vancouver, if we’re honest with ourselves) without the hassle of being destroyed approximately 3.6 times a season in X-blockbuster.**
And, barring Terrence Malick, there’s probably no one better to capture the pregnant spaces, the texture of light falling on walls, the surreal atmosphere of the Vatican better than Paolo Sorrentino. The Italian director’s known specifically for delicately luring the keen, uncanny rhythms of opulence onto the screen, and the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty was his most famous entry. Until now.
So, what exactly is The Young Pope?
It indeed is nothing if not an elusive animal – and, as with classical attempts to define God, it might behoove us to first try crossing out what it’s not.
Maria Jeffery, in a piece posted by the Conservative Review when the first episode aired, called it a “disgusting insult to Christians,” while other pieces suggested it’d be a juicier, melodramatic spin on The Sopranos by way of The Godfather. It’s neither of those things. It happens, surprisingly, to be much more.
But before getting down “more” means, there’s one glaring, gobsmacking aspect of the whole kabob that can’t go unmentioned. Yes, the musical choices nearly reach Tarantino-levels of impeccability and taste. Yes, the imagery is perhaps the first in the history of television (and, likely, film) to really, truly appreciate the visual audacity that is Vatican City. And, yes, Diane Keaton makes an awfully badass nun. Each character, no matter how short their running time, draws on gravity and roots. There are no bit parts, just a concentric series of increasingly humane portraits. All of which orbit round the crisis-in-red-sneakers that is the Holy Father himself, a character who is nothing other than a petty fraud.
I don’t just mean that our hero, Lenny Belardo (AKA Pius XIII), questions whether or not he’s a fraud. He does, but that’s not what I’m getting at. The main issue here’s how a show titled The Young Pope, whose main character’s supposed to be the anchor for everything careening on around him, is the only one who comes off a hastily-assembled bundle of controversy rather than a fully enfleshed human being. It takes no longer than halfway through the second episode to realize he’s completely unreal.
Here’s the scoop: the first episode (of ten) thankfully starts after the conclave’s vote, sparing us the obligatory “tense election scene” we’ve seen before in Angels and Demons, The Borgias and We Have a Pope. Instead, it begins a tad weirder. Think seeing Jude Law, to the nines in white, crawling out from under a minor pyramid of sleeping babies. He then wakes up, prepares himself for his first public address, steps out into the balcony and declares the Church has forgotten how to masturbate, abort and get with the times on sex, marriage and gender. Then he wakes up again.
Advertising for the series usually presents itself with a tagline: “His religion is revolution,” implying this may be the Pope the Huffington Post’s been waiting for, ready to throw out all that cobwebby tradition stuff and get on board with the bandwagon de jour. Which, among other things, might prove as boring as watching a teenager at chess making up his own rules whenever “diagonal” seems überlame.
The series, for better or worse, actually moves in the other direction. See the trailer:
Megalomaniac fish eyes. Being carried in on consecrated shoulders. Presumably-reasonable cardinals cowering in fear. Feather-plumed spears and the papal freaking tiara. It’s promising nothing less than an unsympathetic traddie stereotype on cow steroids. Which, as it happens, is also boring – mostly because it seems like they’re trying to plug Pius into a working model of what’s working on TV these days.
Prestige television, at this point, is saturated with self-important assholes who a) will do whatever it takes to take/keep power, b) have enough people they care about to remain sympathetic to the audience and c) dare us to imagine the next shocking thing they’ll do to keep things from spinning out of control. When it works it really, really works, but the lowlights of The Young Pope’s first season all involve gratuitous expressions of papal disgust and rage for anything resembling human weakness.
Suggest compromise? Get laughed at in the face (or shipped to S̶i̶b̶e̶r̶i̶a̶ Alaska). Don’t know Daft Punk? Instantly defriended. Threaten schism? He goes full-froth bulldog on your unrepentant backside. Get him something other than Cherry Coke for breakfast? Lord have mercy on your soul.
All this, plus an Oliver Twist backstory, junctures of unexpected and moving connection, pensive longing for parental love and a number of achingly tender moments with a kangaroo.
The annoying part is how often he veers from his two very opposite poles – people wonder if he’s a saint or a maniac, but no one suggest the very reasonable possibility of his being bipolar. Or replaced by a double. I don’t say that flippantly: everyone’s responses to him are as polarized as his behaviour. First we’re exposed to grand posturing, melodramatic cape-flapping and (forgive the pun) pontificating on how horrible the world is and how anything resembling pastoral care is a thing of the past. Then we’re drawn in to see the Pope in miniature: susceptible to beauty, moved by human frailty, genuinely driven to make the Church a force capable of standing against a suffocating, superficial modernity.
The other main issue is how false said pontificating turns out to be – he says things that ring hollow to anyone with a smidgen of religious literacy. He seems to sincerely advocate a return to tradition yet pressures the Vatican confessor to become a mole. He’ll claim to be able to stand up to God in one scene before grovelling in prayer the next. He openly disdains feminism but then elevates Sister Mary (Diane!****) to an advisory position typically held by men. Paolo Sorrentino, it seems, has not done his research. If Catholics are still looking for mainstream representation in art that gives justice to how things actually work within the Church, Pope Pius XIII lets them down on multiple levels.
Other than this colossal distraction, the show is an absolute feast.
Given how the entire list of papacy-related TV shows that’ve come before The Young Pope fall neatly into a binary of a) uncritical and schlocky after-school-specials or b) ridiculously sultry (and be-cassock’d) orgies, it comes as a bit of a shock to realise this’s a show that refuses to settle on being either liberal or conservative. This is revolutionary. Mind-boggling. Unsettling. How they ever got this past anything resembling a board of approval I will never know – HBO, it seems, is gutsier than we’ve realized.
Growth, on The Young Pope, isn’t about changing your beliefs so much as understanding them better – it’s about growing roots, not walking away. Lenny grows more sympathetic as the series continues but never compromises on beliefs that would draw protests if he tried speaking at a modern university campus. The fact that the showrunner lets him be who he is and grow on his own terms shows tremendous narrative maturity and artistic courage. We’re in a time when unexpected and recent political developments (¿yay 2016?) have led a growing number of people to take a zero-tolerance approach to certain ideas understandably (if subjectively) perceived as dangerous – HBO takes a person with said ideas and makes your identification with him the core of their show. This isn’t just showing off – it’s an experiment in radical empathy.
A lot of cultural development happens precisely the same way: if you want to evoke compassion (and perhaps social change), use art to create a space where people feel safe getting close to something that’s otherwise threatening. Think slavery’s just fine? Here’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Think queer people are anathema? Switch on Will and Grace.
Add that to a growing tradition of humanizing characters who’ve traditionally been portrayed as villains: what if Grendel was misunderstood? What if the Wicked Witch of the West was a woman broken by attempts at fighting a remorseless political machine? What if Maleficent was acting from a place of profound woundedness rather than maliciousness? And so now we get the Pope’s treatment – what if the world treats him as a human being, even with his perceived-to-be archaic beliefs? What if those beliefs don’t have to alienate you? What if you can see through to the fleshy core of his aches and aspirations?
Not to mention his dreams – the show is full of elaborate dream or dream-like sequences that push the edges of what coarse beauties television can serve up on a Monday night. Wordless nuns radiate Saint Peter’s like a school of bioluminescent fish. The aforementioned kangaroo ghosts through the Vatican gardens at night. Sister Mary plays basketball. Pope Pius kneeling in prayer in front of a parked line of transport trucks. Topless femen protesters rise from the hedges. An Alaskan parish holds mass in the frozen air. And, in perhaps my favourite three minutes of 2017, the prime minister of Finland dances alone between a pair of columns to a song that owes as much to honky-tonk as it does to Bjork. We don’t know how much is actually happening and how much of it’s in Lenny’s head, and I have no idea how Sorrentino makes it work.
A more conventional series would follow the introduction of nuance, compassion and visual poetry with a softening of the main characters edges, Mr. Darcy style, until you’re not able to imagine what alienated you about the character in the first place. Not so here. Pope Pius, as does his show, remains both awe-inspiring and childish. Petty and transcendental. A statue of Pope John Paul II gets smashed by a goopy asteroid in the title sequence. Typically cheap, tourist knick-knacks somehow transform Rome’s most famous Square into something deeply familiar and moving. A would-be visionary tries manipulating the Vatican only to have a flock of cardinals appear in his dining room, mob style. A woman is suspended in the air, alone in her bed, by crane. There are campy dress-up sequences, extended ogling of the papal tiara, usage of LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” All in the same scene.
You think I’m kidding?
I’m breathless. I’ve never seen anything like it.
But would this qualify, in the Catholic sense, as blasphemy?
I would argue a deep, abiding no. Yes, the show takes a number of obsessive low-blows at aspects of Catholicism and that can’t be excused – again, a total lack of both religious literacy and an understanding of things Sorrentino’s wanting to subvert. He has his characters make horrendous generalizations about the priesthood and religious life that ring worse than hollow. But I would argue these happen more out of ignorance than malice – what Sorrentino’s going for here is the abiding humanity of the Vatican and its people. And, in the spirit of a certain Ignatian principle (if one is bent too far one way for too long, the correct response is to go a little too far the other way to correct the inclination in preparation for living a healthy, balanced life), the inhuman and inhumane stuffiness of too many Vatican depictions is swapped for excessive vitality.
How many biopics of saints and clergy could one Google***** that lack a basic sense of humour or, worse, anything resembling a pulse? One might get the impression, watching certain low-budget productions, that the chief Catholic virtue is a stiff upper lip. In contrast, Jude Law’s mouth could give Meryl Streep a run for her Oscars. Depicting the energy, embarrassment, disappointed joys, unexpected delights and even the pettiness of Vatican officials merely presents them as human in all our fallacy and wonder.
Yes, the Vatican Secretary of State harbours uncomfortable feelings for a certain ancient statue, but he also finds solace in the openness of a boy whose mental disabilities leave him alone and hidden in Rome. Yes, one of the cardinals close to the Pope struggles with his vows of purity, but he admits himself weak and a work in progress. Yes, there are power struggles driven as much by personal ambition as by concern for the Church’s future. Who are we to deny the high clergy their humanity in all its dimensions?
Talking about material that’d be iffy for Catholic audiences: there are brief moments of sexually explicit imagery that would recommend viewer discretion. There are cheap shots that could only come from a world that misunderstands the Catholic tradition and what it stands for. The harsh tone and early religious insensitivity might make it a hard watch for some. There’s an abundance of irreverence, but it never robs God of awe nor people of their dignity – in fact, the main thing being deconstructed is the pride that typically comes with attaining positions of global standing. The Pope, Sister Mary, Voiello (the Cardinal Secretary of State), Cardinal Spencer (Lenny’s former mentor…played by James Cromwell) and others look ridiculous because we, as people, are ridiculous. Everyone experiences profound encounters with humiliation in its classical sense: the challenge to humility. No one, in the end, is left a buffoon. Just human.
So, in the end, is The Young Pope’s take offensive? Fleetingly, and mostly when it slips up with religious literacy. But is the show necessary? Heavens, yes.
The Double Take
Then, entering the final stretch of episodes, just as one feels secure in how to approach Lenny and his crew (a flawed depiction of a flawed character surrounded by a generous array of challenging, humane character portraits), another curveball gets chucked at the viewer right between the eyes.
It’s not that the nature of the show changes dramatically – levels of compassionate snark still reign and attention to detail continues to stagger/delight the audience: kids of the Swiss Guard rollerskate on the helipad. Gutierrez, a Cardinal in charge of investigating a sex-abuse case in America, shows the Pope his hotel room on what appears to be FaceTime. Sister Mary sleeps in a ridiculous t-shirt.
It’s not just how Sorrentino’s immaculate control starts to slip, letting a cloying sentimentality and lazy dialogue worm their way into the back end. It’s not even that indefensible Beyoncé cover. It’s how Lenny, who for the first two thirds of the show (as well as the first two thirds of this post) makes himself known as an aesthetically compromised caricature, starts settling into the pattern of a breathing, plausible human being.
The gratuitous temper tantrums nearly disappear. The dribbling egomania is replaced by a more recognizable degree of cockiness and condescension. His pastoral awareness kicks into high gear even though his theological stances don’t change in the slightest – his belief in homosexual disorder, for example, remains the same but he learns compassion and understanding for those, even among the clergy, who formerly aroused only disgust and rejection.
The Pope’s journey from burlesque parody to flesh-and-blood human being might seem like a minor touch-up of a mostly impressive first season, but what if this double-take actually changes everything?
What if, for the first time, we’re approaching a critically praised, emotionally honest and aesthetically passionate depiction of the inner lives and struggles of Catholics, one that can stand tall in a postmodern world? Yes, there are still a few major flaws with how things are represented, but the final Pope we’re left with isn’t just young: he’s a person capable of making morally questionable choices while beset with concerns and yearnings familiar to anyone. He’s a potential instrument of divine grace (the show makes no attempt to hide that, perhaps, God is real and can work miracles) who, even on his crusade to elevate the Church, knows the intimate language of temptation. He’s awkward and likeable even when he’s reprehensible.
That’s not to say he still doesn’t have a long way to go – he still misunderstands the emotions of the people around him. When he finally attains a confidante in a woman who, at one point, is infatuated with him, she eventually pokes for a hasty exit because his need for platonic friendship is, if adorable, somewhat oppressive. That, and he may have dropped her baby once. When he’s confronted with an affectionate cabal of ancient, former pontiffs (assembled, with exquisite taste, at the far end of his breakfast table) he asks for advice but visibly deflates when he gets a one-liner along the lines of believing in oneself. “Have you got something…a little better?” he prods. “That’s a banal platitude.”
“If only you knew how true a banal platitude can be, my dear colleague,” says their spokesman, “after all – look at us. We are power, and power is a banal platitude.”
Sorrentino’s also got a long way to go in fixing up the show’s more blatant issues – brushing up on the long history of Catholic thought, for one, may indeed turn out to provide illuminating answers to the questions stumping his characters. It’ll go far in helping correct elements in The Young Pope still coming off as lazy parody.
Besides that, though, the final product is mighty impressive: moments of character and institutional weakness transcend gaudy finger-pointing. Clergy recognize the humanity of their romantic longings even if (for the most part) they remain faithful to their vows. A sex-abuse scandal involving an American archbishop is treated with a shocking level of nuance and understanding, which is affecting given how explosive responses to the tragedy can (very understandably) turn out to be. The uncomfortable crannies of human nature are genuinely and unsettlingly probed. There is no fear of admitting how, sometimes, virtue is as motivated by weakness or pathology as vice can be.
That, and this Pope’s a smoker. Tobacco companies rejoice.
*The Tudors wants their show back.
**The last reported*** instance of utter Vatican destruction was 2004’s The Day After Tomorrow.
***One might argue in favour of 2005’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but the whole planet gets blown to pieces so it doesn’t count.
****Odd blip – Diane Keaton plays another Sister Mary in the satirical Sister Mary Explains it All. I’m not sure how intentional this is, as Sorrentino’s Sr. Mary is a much more compassionate figure than this original incarnation. It may be that Diane wanted to keep the name as a joke.
*****Take any of these. But exceptions do exist.
Josh Nadeau is currently based in Serbia and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.