Are we all the Young Pope?
*Piece originally published in Stanford’s Arcade. Image modification provided*
How to start discussing an HBO series like The Young Pope? There are many rabbit holes in which to plunge. Some reviewers have fallen for Pius XIII’s (Jude Law) Cherry Coke Zero breakfast diet or Sister Mary’s (Diane Keaton) infamous “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt” bedtime garment. Others have been struck by the exotic kangaroo hopping around the Vatican Gardens or the very skilled group of young nuns playing soccer between lauds. If it comes to frivolously delicious scenes, my “Oscar” goes to the one with the Vatican stairs flooded by red streams of cardinals heading to the Sistine Chapel for a Papal speech, all this while Pius tries on his holiest attires and dons his most bejewelled tiara and everybody is moving to “I am sexy and I know it” by LMFAO! For sure, it is dazzlingly sexy, it is deviously divine, and it shows that white is the new camp.
But The Young Pope is more than mere frivolity and memes.
Others have addressed the show’s political undertones. This lens produces a House of Cards comparison stressing how the show depicts a puppet gone rogue. Indeed, in the series one can see the US cardinal Lenny Belardo, Pius’s name before the investiture, coming to St. Peter’s chair after an intricate set of conspiracies from older cardinals, who were only looking for a PR strawman that would allow them to govern from the shadows. But the joke was on them, as Pius turns out to be a young ultraconservative despot who decides to erase any sign of aggionarmiento from the Church and go back to the terrible splendours and ineffable mysteries of Medieval and Renaissance Papacies (the ones before the Protestant Reform). With the temper of the Old-Testament God, we can see a complacent Pius proclaiming the new Church’s agenda to the cardinals at the Sistine Chapel: “There is nothing outside your obedience to Pius XIII. Nothing except Hell”. As it is, Pius has the supernatural unpredictability of a pagan divinity. When confronted with it, the whole cardinalate, and even the Italian Prime Minister, invariably succumb to his commands.
Unsurprisingly, after the political watersheds of 2016, a host of commentators fell into the comfortable heresy of drawing parallels between Pius XIII and Donald Trump. The temptation was too strong. Sorrentino, however, was quick to bring them back to the true doctrine by explaining that the resemblance is just a casual one. The show was conceived long before these events, though the Italian director acknowledges it might have come with the gift of prophecy. Not just for global politics, but also for the Catholic Church after Francis. Sure enough, for some theocons, the Argentinean Pope’s call for mercy has gone too far; and, accordingly, they plot in the dark and passionately dream for a Pius XIII, so that their Earthly will can be carried on into the Heavens.
Still, there is more to The Young Pope than worldly politics.
There is that uncomfortable realm of the miracles, the visions, and the unsettling dreams. All these being messengers of the divine at times. At other moments becoming great stirrers of painful memories and sexual desires. There is something certainly psychotropic and promiscuous in Sorrentino’s able use of grotesque dreams, daily hallucinations, the flashback, EDM and the Vatican’s decadent exquisiteness. These elements are all used to portray a Church that not only struggles with outrageous paedophilia cases, but also deals with political and monetary prevarications, along with priestly addictions and carnal infidelities. All amid supernaturally holy scenes, miraculous healings, eerie piles of babies (!) and portentous pregnancies. In this series, the most holy is deeply mixed with the vilest things. Certainly no blow is held back as we get privileged seats in the dramatic staging of all moral issues, even those that make Catholicism a religion of scandal nowadays: its position on homosexuality and abortion. We must thank God for Sorrentino as only his disaffected genius could explore these ethical conundrums within the own tenets of the Church. In the process he even gives us discussions worthy to those held by the Church’s First Fathers, back then, when the institution was still young, like this Pope.
And yet, The Young Pope manages to transcend our Post-Truth Secularised world.
It takes us to the lands of missions deep in Africa, to the terrors of war, poverty, thirst, and hunger. It is in this desolate territory of extreme injustice, far from the opulence of the selfish West, that the biggest miracle of all is shown. A Pius incapable of account for any sin in luscious Rome can now, in the African wilderness, open his soul to a black humble priest in a cabin made of straw. At last, his Papal infallibility falls to the ground and this proud bishop of Rome strips away his imperial might to accept the inevitable: he doubts himself. The catharsis doesn’t last long. In yet another burlesque move of the series, we immediately learn that Pius’s poor confessor knows no English, but the phantom of doubt has already seeped into the cracks.
As it is, The Young Pope has many rabbit holes in which to plunge. But deep down, Sorrentino shows us a broken and orphaned man in doubt. Sure, it starts with the diabolical notion of a Pope that may not believe in God. It carries on with a Machiavellian despot, and portrays an intransigent priest that shuns all believers away while using celibacy and seclusion as shields to avoid the pains of heartbreak. However, the frivolous, the moral, the political, the supernatural, the developing world scenes… all these are put on stage to unveil that deep down Pius doubts himself. He is not alone in that. We all doubt ourselves at some point. In that, only in that perhaps, we are all the Young Pope. Sure, he might still manage the dubious miracle of praying for the untimely death of evil nuns, but after that confession in Africa, Pius is no longer able to unleash the wrath of God in all its fury. Whether he likes it or not, Belardo sees himself gradually welcoming again mercy, that tenant he tried so hard to evict from the Church. He also starts becoming a devout follower of blessed Juana, the show’s Central American saint-to-be that died loving the world.
Sorrentino may be a firm believer. He may be not. But he has decided to portray one of the most ancient and divinely powerful posts on the planet through an afflicted man that suffers from the most mundane problems of all: self-doubt and loneliness. We must thank God for that. In the process, The Young Pope explores all the lights and shadows of human experience, while it subtly uses beauty as a bridge between faith and disbelief.