Saturday, June 24, 2017

The Young Pope - a review

The Young Pope, a made-for-TV series in ten episodes, starring Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII, is built on a brilliant paradox. The handsome youth, the first ever American pope, would seem to be a walking advertisement for modernity and progressive ideas. In reality, he is the embodiment of the conservative extreme, as far removed ideologically from the current Pope Francis as it is possible to go.

Progressive Catholics have for some time now been trying in vain to turn their church away from the view that heterosexual men should rule the world. Vatican II has failed to get much traction so far, and time after time the Curia has managed to place one conservative after another back in power to fix the mess, as they see it, that John XXIII made in the 60s. Pope Francis’s warmth and relative informality gave great hope at first, but time has made it clear he is not really going to shake things up much. It’s still pretty much business as usual in the Vatican.
That reality has obviously had an impact on the imagination of Paolo Sorrentino, the creator and director of The Young Pope, who has created a fictional character who is simultaneously saint and psychopath. OK, Sorrentino is saying, "What if you guys had your way and got a real conservative to run the show?" And what if this conservative turns out to be the quintessential everyman, i.e., saint and sinner all rolled into one?
As the character of the fictional Pope Pius XIII begins to unfold, the contradictions come across at first as a loud noise. New York Times reviewer James Poniewozik refers to the series as a “pulpy and disjointed…art-house ‘Vatican of Cards’.”  But with time, due in part to some splendid acting, the notion of a young modern-looking pope who turns out to be the most reactionary conservative pope yet, begins to seem not all that hard to conceive of. After all, we live in the age of Donald Trump. Where once we objected that “surely they would not have put a man like this in office,” and “nobody can be quite this self-serving and egotistical,” we now know those once firmly held certainties are certainties no longer.

Trump comes to mind each time Pius frustrates and sometimes terrifies those around him with his unpredictability and his autocratic nature. The plot line has it that the manipulative progressive Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), has won out against his rival, the manipulative Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), by persuading his fellow electors in the Conclave (Voiello is simultaneously camerlengo, i.e., Vatican treasurer) that a handsome young face is just what the church needs to regenerate lagging church support after the damage inflicted by recent scandals.
The series begins to grab hold of you once you realize it’s not just about sinister self-serving old men (and yes, they are quite sinister) but about the kind of men found in all large organizations, including especially the Church itself. These are men with a utilitarian ethical system who believe (or act as if they believe) that evil done in the service of good is excusable. At one point the pope says to Voiello, who has just shown him the button under his desk which summons a nun with an excuse that his next appointment is waiting, when he wants to escape an undesirable audience, “You mean, you tell her to lie.” “Yes,” says Voiello, “But she will have plenty of time to repent.” Some have called this “moral flexibility” the “Italian way of running things.” A witty way of poking fun when it comes to little white lies. Something else again when there are larger issues at stake.

It was precisely this mode of thinking that led to the cover-ups in the child abuse scandals. Cardinals thought that ignoring justice and treatment for innocent child victims for the greater good of protecting the reputation of the church was just their way of doing God’s work.That thinking has since backfired badly, and provided a reason for why the church should want a pretty young face to hopefully put things right.
There is a moment in the film of delicious naivete when it becomes clear to Voiello that the pope he was convinced he would be able to manipulate has a will beyond Voiello’s reach. The pope has taken to telling his flock they should not stop to adore him or the church but go directly to God. Never mind that that message is nonsense, considering the historical role the church has taken on as explainer of God’s will through its magisterium, its teachings. Voiello wonders aloud whether it could actually be the Holy Spirit at work. Perhaps it was the Holy Spirit selecting this pope in the first place, Voiello wonders aloud, and is now guiding him to reform the church, effectively announcing to his fellow bishops that this bullshit we have been sending out about how our actions are guided by the Holy Spirit is actually true! Just because you're a Machiavellian doesn't mean you can't be a believer.
This then raises the next question. Is the absolutism of the pope, the insistence on maintaining the traditions of the church, the male supremacy, the autocracy, the infallibility, the role of cleric as intercessor, the church as the “only true faith,” the sole door to Heaven, is that actually all true?
Absolutism is at the opposite extreme from openness. The logic of absolute truth is its unbending denial of flexibility, doubt, and diversity. The attractiveness of The Young Pope is its exploration of the notion of what would happen if the absolutists were to gain the upper hand, if they were able to persuade the masses that their claims to speak for God required absolute obedience and submission to the church’s claims.
The heart of the film is the scene where the Pope reveals in his address to his cardinals that these are to be the goals of his reign. He puts on the papal tiara, which he has recalled to the Vatican from a museum in America, dons the robes and sits before his cardinal minions in Oriental splendor to announce the new policy, one that the last pope Benedict XIV hinted at but never got around to actually implementing.  It is worth citing in its entirety, spoken in modern American informal English:

Knock knock! Knock knock! We’re not in. 

Brother cardinals, from this day forward, we’re not in, no matter who’s knocking on our door. We’re in, but only for God. From this day forward, everything that was wide open is gonna be closed. Evangelization. We’ve already done it. Ecumenicalism. Been there, done that. Tolerance. It doesn’t live here anymore. It’s been evicted. It vacated the house for the new tenant, who has diametrically opposite tastes in decorating. We’ve been reaching out to others for years now. It’s time to stop!

We are not going anywhere. We are here. Because, what are we? We are cement. And cement doesn’t move. We are cement without windows. So, we don’t look to the outside world. “Only the Church possesses the charisma of truth” said St. Ignatius of Antioch. And he was right. We have no reason to look out. Instead, look over there.
What do you see? That’s the door. The only way in. Small and extremely uncomfortable. And anyone who wants to know us has to find out how to get through that door.

Brother cardinals, we need to go back to being prohibited. Inaccessible and mysterious. That’s the only way we can once again become desirable. That is the only way great love stories are born. And I don’t want any more part-time believers. I want great love stories. I want fanatics for God. Because fanaticism is love. Everything else is strictly a surrogate, and it stays outside the church.

With the attitudes of the last Papacy, the church won for itself great expressions of fondness from the masses. It became popular. Isn’t that wonderful, you might be thinking! We received plenty of esteem and lots of friendship. I have no idea what to do with the friendship of the whole wide world.

What I want is absolute love and total devotion to God. Could that mean a Church only for the few? That’s a hypothesis, and a hypothesis isn’t the same as reality. But even this hypothesis isn’t so scandalous. I say: better to have a few that are reliable than to have a great many that are distractible and indifferent. The public squares have been jam-packed, but the hearts have been emptied of God. You can’t measure love with numbers, you can only measure it in terms of intensity. In terms of blind loyalty to the imperative.

Fix that word firmly in your souls: Imperative.

From this day forth, that’s what the Pope wants, that’s what the Church wants, that’s what God wants. And so the liturgy will no longer be a social engagement, it will become hard work. And sin will no longer be forgiven at will. 

I don’t expect any applause from you. There will be no expressions of thanks in this chapel. None from me. And none from you. Courtesy and good manners are not the business of men of God. What I do expect is that you will do what I have told you to do. There is nothing outside your obedience to Pius XIII. Nothing except Hell. A Hell you may know nothing about, but I do. Because I’ve built it, right behind that door: Hell.

In the past few days, I’ve had to build Hell for you, that’s why I’ve come to you belatedly. I know you will obey, because you’ve already figured out that this Pope isn’t afraid to lose the faithful if they’ve been even slightly unfaithful, and that means this Pope does not negotiate. On anything or with anyone. And this Pope cannot be blackmailed!

From this day forth, the word “compromise”, has been banished from the vocabulary. I’ve just deleted it. When Jesus willingly mounted the cross, he was not making compromises. And neither am I.


Part and parcel of Roman Catholic conservatism is the elevation of the person of the pope to near-divine status. Pius IX declared the pope infallible during Vatican I, and even though that applies strictly speaking when he is speaking ex cathedra, most of his pronouncements take on near infallible status. To maintain this status, the pope is garbed in sumptuous silks and satins, his fingers covered in jewels and his feet in red slippers. This distinction from ordinary men carries over to the hierarchy as well, with the Cardinals being referred to as “princes” of the Church. Sorrentino makes much of the power of this visual distinction between ordinary men and those with claims to be divinely associated. The film is a feast for the eyes. And Sorrentino has gone even further. His pope is a beautiful hunk of man, seen to be pumping up at regular intervals in the gym. Beautiful and strong and powerful is our “young pope.” With big blue eyes, yet.

I stumbled at first over the fact that Sorrentino decided to have the pope actually be a saint in reality (fictional reality, I mean, of course). He has him perform certifiable miracles. I saw that as confusion on Sorrentino’s part over whether he meant to make the pope an actual saint or simply a vehicle for his audience to question what one would have to be like to qualify. Does one simply have to hold out against abortion, homosexuality, women’s rights, and euthanasia? And maintain clerical celibacy and hierarchy? Or does one have to persuade God to put aside his natural laws in response to prayers as well? Are Catholics watching the film meant to be persuaded this may be an actual saint? Or is Sorrentino seeking to subvert the conservative project?

The weakness of the series is the weakness of all series; it is hard to maintain a constant level of interest for ten solid hours. As a binge-watcher, I am an advocate of not allowing too much time between episodes to pass, so that the characters and events remain vivid. But I understand that all series require soap opera like subplots to fill the time, and often those subplots can become distractions which have the same effect as long breaks. In the end, several of the subplots I first assumed to be distractions turned out to be carefully woven twists that both kept the plot going and revealed the true nature of the main characters. The manipulation of the alcoholic Monsignor Gutierrez (played effectively by Javier Cámara of Talk to Her fame) into becoming his better self by sending him out into the world for the first time to deal with a priest abuse crisis, for example. And the way the pope learns to love the child he has brought into being through a miracle.

Examples of good writing, in other words. To go along with some good acting, generally. (Wish that applied to Diane Keaton, the only actor I thought was badly cast.)
In the end, as much as The Young Pope is considered by some to be satirical, the story is not a critique of the church, unless you (like me) insist on making it one. It is much more the story of an imperfect soul, not that different from the rest of us, who gets to imagine for a while that he can change the world.

The underlying story line is powerful. Lenny Belardo, an orphan who grows up to be pope, is haunted by the need to find his parents, whom he learns at some point are still alive, but do not want to be found. In times of despair, that search becomes a reason for carrying on, and a plot device that carries the story throughout. Some seriously good writing here. Even an occasional bon mot. ("Goodness, unless combined with imagination, runs the risk of being mere exhibitionism.")

I’m not sure that applies to the decision to put a kangaroo in the garden. Have to think about that some more.

photo credits
(with cigarette:

1 comment:

William D. Lindsey said...

Best commentary I've read so far on the series, Alan. I loved having his close-the-doors address to the cardinals in text form to read. Had forgotten some details of it from watching the series.