Beginning with the promise of Vatican intrigue, innuendo about scandal, and power politics, HBO’s latest Paolo Sorrentino-written venture certainly offers much in the way of entertainment. Yet, given the subject matter, it’s commendable that HBO equally allows for the transcendent, the beautiful and the true to have their say in the convoluted story of The Young Pope.
The drama revolves around Lenny Belardo, elected Pope Pius XIII, a weighty name given the precedents. By his own admission, the main character is a contradiction “like God who is one, but three”, “like Mary, who is virgin and mother”. Sartorially impeccable, Pius brandishes the long discarded papal crown alongside strikingly traditional vestments, and pontificates without hesitation on the importance for relationship with God above all else, “exclusively”. At the same time, Lenny, the man behind the papacy, personally struggles with faith, is no stranger to the occasional blasphemy, and has a predilection for undermining, sometimes brutally so, those around him- all the while, carrying the reputation of a saint, for performing miracles through the power of prayer.
So far, I’ve seen the fair share of the Catholic faithful who’ve been understandably perhaps, alienated by the series, fearing for the worst, namely another Hollywood big-media assault on the Church and everything they hold dear. Precedents of this certainly do abound. Yet, Sorrentino’s drama does captivate the imagination, by virtue of escaping such easy cheap shots, and indeed the categorization itself- by being merely, if at times amusingly, realistic in its presentation of the holy alongside the profane in this world of ours, in this age (let the reader understand).
As an existential narrative, it is gripping in its juxtaposition of sound Catholic doctrine alongside the almost inevitable failure of people to live by it. As Pius says at one point, “I renounced my fellow man and woman, for God, because God, God’s absence, is definitive, always reassuring […] because I am a coward, as all priests are cowards.” And sure enough, as the drama develops, one by one, many characters are revealed in both their vices and their virtues. As an artistic production by a major media company, it certainly is refreshing to see issues of faith dealt with seriously, without falling into either the traps of hunky dory pious perfection or a tired and sterile postmodern skepticism.
Arguably, The Young Pope in its stark contrasts and often paradoxical characters, has something of the feel of a Graham Greene novel, accompanied suitably by a soundtrack that ranges from the sublime heights of Arvo Part to the worldly vanities of electronic popular music of the likes of LMFAO (yes, really), interlaced with nods to hipsterdom with the inclusion of Belle and Sebastian, alongside other similar acts.
I’d venture to say that perhaps the most surprising element of the series is the degree to which the old chestnuts of Catholic teaching, which so often fall foul of the contemporary zeitgeist, reappear in the lips of Pius XIII as absolute dogmas, a strange sight on HBO. From abortion to homosexuality, not only are archaic positions held on to, but he appears to cherish them precisely for that reason. Personal occasional crises of faith aside, Pius maintains throughout a public persona of unassailable orthodoxy, single-handedly carrying the series’ undercurrent of anti-modernism, riding roughshod over timid clergymen, secular-minded politicians, and even close friends as he goes about his way to #MakeTheCatholicChurchGreatAgain.
My appropriation of the Trumpist slogan is apt given the flow and nature of the show, for here we have a veritable “Trump papacy” of sorts. In the newborn age of hyperbole, which emphasizes the aesthetic and mythic power of symbolism, in the midst of a long period of uncertainty that characterizes what Zymunt Bauman called “liquid modernity”, Pius emerges as a man set on restoring what he perceives as the greatness of the past. At one point, when questioned on his alienating impact on the faithful, he retorts with a question, namely whether the Church has done better when it ruled on the basis of fear, or tolerance.
Very revealingly, Lenny is an orphan, abandoned by hippie parents as a child at the doorstep of a Catholic orphanage one day. As we accompany his struggles in accepting this reality, it very much seems to be the case, if we are to take a trip to the psychoanalyst’s couch, that much of his bluster and uncompromising stance is a direct rebuttal to his parent’s free-wheeling ways. In this, The Young Pope, captures an internal dispute in the Church itself, even if imperfectly, between what the 1960s put forward, in the various progressive reforms that took place since then, and what a younger generation of conservatives has risen to dispute.
Yet, if it’s true that history is first made as tragedy, and later as farce, we are anxiously left wondering whether Pius XIII is truly charting a path back to glory, or bluffing his way through the job, ultimately groping in the dark of his own doubts and insecurities.
Like Trump, HBO’s Lenny Belardo, is put in a position of power that entails not only the means of realizing the most ambitious project but also the sheer loneliness that inevitably accompanies the decision-making. Throughout, we are left in a sense of expectation, given expression by the other characters, as to just what his plan is, whose details are never divulged, but whose content slowly unfolds in a series of dramatic gestures and provocative encounters.
The Young Pope appears to be a production that is aimed at the discomfort of viewers in many ways, and that is mainly where its merits lies; to the faithful it opens a window into the scandals we often overlook or prefer not to discuss, the cynical politicking that often occurs behind the scenes- the sins which are a stain on the Holy Roman Church. To the skeptics, it similarly offers a glimpse into the life of faith, where God ultimately reigns over the fate and foibles of mankind, sometimes inviting a response in the darkness of silence, sometimes acting directly in the forms of miracles and enlightenment in the lives of characters.
Overall, I’d say it’s a triumph in production and writing, visually stunning and provocative in its message, Paolo Sorrentino has crafted quite a masterpiece. Though it remains to be seen where the show will take the viewers in the second season, as the first is quite a hard act to follow.