Friday, November 22, 2019

Divine Entertainment: The Young Pope

Jude Law and Silvio Orlando in The Young Pope on HBO.

Now that Paolo Sorrentino's new limited series The New Pope has premiered at the Venice Film Festival and has a rumored end-of-year release date, it's a good time to look back at its prequel, The Young Pope (2016). Michael Lueger has written about the pilot episode on this website, but I think a comprehensive appraisal could yield a different perspective.

The Young Pope is a deeply thought-through meditation on the two perennially warring factions of the Catholic Church and, despite what it seems, it displays a solidly Catholic perspective. But to really get it, you’ll have to go farther back in the history and traditions of the Church than the Second Vatican Council – which, ironically, is exactly what Lenny Belardo, Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) – I’ll call him Lenny – would have wanted you to do.

From the beginning of the pilot, The Young Pope looks like it’s hyperstylized out of its mind. Soon you realize it’s just a dream sequence that in its weird way manages to convey the time-stopping experience of waking up on your first day as Pope. Then the show gets really crazy by having Lenny not just flaunt convention but spit in its face: Frank Underwood-ing his Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (a smooth yet vulnerable Silvio Orlando), reassigning a cardinal to Alaska out of petty spite, and refusing to let his likeness be used for merchandising.

It’s precisely these three opening moves that offer a way into the Catholicism of the show. Let’s go in reverse order. Lenny’s refusing to be depicted or seen at all by the masses gestures toward the mystical side of the faith, exemplified by Saint Augustine of Hippo. Old Augie led a dissolute life in his youth until one day he heard the call of God. His Confessions are a record of his thoughts and experiences on the path to redemption, a path which was pointed out for him, and which he was motivated to pursue, not of his own volition but by the power of the Holy Spirit. The mysterious, personal aspect of faith henceforth took on the label “Augustinian.” Lenny refuses to be turned into a spectacle, reserving his presence and likeness for personal, intimate encounters in which he is able to enact mystical faith with the use of, yes, his handsome young face – after all, the word “charisma” was first used to refer to the allure of the holy person.

Shunting the cardinal off to Alaska is not only an act of vengeance; it also removes an obstacle to Lenny’s ambitious agenda. This political act of Church governance recalls another paradigmatic Father of the Church, Saint Thomas Aquinas. The strain of thought named “Thomist” follows the lead of Aquinas’s massive Summa Theologiae, an encyclopedic work of theology that attempts to work through the contradictions of, and answer every question about, the Catholic doctrine of his day. Not every logically rigorous thinker can manage such a feat; one has to have a sense of which direction each resolution of a dilemma should take, and has to get those answers from somewhere. The Church canonized Aquinas on the (undoubtedly correct) assumption that his answers and logical exertions were divinely inspired; nonetheless, Aquinas famously lamented that he could not feel directly inspired by the Holy Spirit, as Augustine could. If Augustine represents the personal, intimate relationship between the faithful and the Godhead, then Aquinas stands for the worthy work of realizing the Catholic faith through secular means.

The tension between these two modes of religious logic is physically embodied in the person of the Pope – any Pope – and is here manifested for the viewer in how Lenny deals with his Cardinal Secretary of State. As head of the Curia, or Vatican bureaucracy, Voiello might be expected to hold conservative views preserving the status quo, but in fact he is a reformist at heart. It’s Lenny who’s the conservative, even more so than his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). (The American bishopric, especially the East Coast, is conservative in real life.) Thus, in a clever reversal of every newcomer political drama, The Young Pope has a liberal member of the bureaucracy frantically maintaining, by hook or by crook, a holding pattern against the new deeply reactionary political leader – and yet each side uses the methods traditional to bureaucratic rearguard and incoming vanguard: Lenny with his newly formed coterie employs shock-and-awe tactics, and a bit of arm-twisting, against Voiello’s bureaucratic foot-dragging, shady extortion of subordinates, and borderline-conspiratorial consultations with other Cardinals. The genius of the show is in how this setup gets us to root for the reactionary.

Diane Keaton in The Young Pope.

That’s the setup. The execution is basically House of Cards (2013-18), as Lueger observes, even down to how conflicts are resolved and obstacles overcome outside the normal channels of power. Instead of Frank’s extortion and character assassination, Lenny exercises (and threatens to exercise) his monarchical power and successfully prays for divine intervention. This brings us to the question of Lenny’s own personal faith. He says he doesn’t believe in God; then, like a boy professing his love for his crush on April Fool’s Day only to be rejected, he adds that he’s only kidding. This turn of events shocks Lenny’s confessor, Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo), but we shouldn’t be so gullible. Given that Lenny does indeed have the miraculous ability to call upon divine intervention, the whole question of the Pope’s faith is moot: In this story-world, just like in that of the uncannily Catholic Constantine (2005), God exists, period. In fact, Lenny’s crisis of faith might be the same one that John Constantine (Keanu Reeves) has: as Archangel Gabriel (Tilda Swinton, with her signature androgyny) says to Constantine, exorcist extraordinaire: God demands “[b]elief . . . You know, and there’s a difference.”

The bigger question in this series is whether his agenda is being guided by God or by the trauma of his orphanhood, abandoned by both his parents at a young age. The answer, I think, is both. The political concept of the “two bodies” of the sovereign has it that the sovereign exists in both the body and the role, and that ending one doesn’t end the other. Lenny’s personal motivations may stem from his own psychology, but that doesn’t necessarily negate the holy legitimacy of his political agenda. Aside from his conservative position on social issues like women in the clergy, homosexuality, and contraception – the effects of which are arguable – his other efforts do a lot of good for the faithful. He refines and purifies the faith by discouraging fair-weather worshippers, gets rid of sexual predators Archbishop Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) and Sister Antonia (Milvia Marigliano), and replaces too-worldly clergymen with those who are truly moved by faith. He himself exemplifies the practices of faith that he preaches, bringing Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) into his inner circle to soften up and humanize Voiello, and spreading the fundamentally Christian message of love for all and sunder through a speech in a war-torn African nation (voice only, his presence hidden) and the release of his pre-seminary love letters (collected by an attempted blackmailer).

Whether Lenny believes in God, God believes in Lenny. In addition to the three documented miracles (healing a sick woman, enabling Esther, played by an ephemeral Ludivine Sagnier, to conceive a child, and removing Sister Antonia by giving her a heart attack) – four, if you count getting elected Pope – there are a few minor incidents that for anyone but the Pope would be mere coincidence. He too easily coaxes a kangaroo, gifted by Australia, out of its cage. Lenny sends banished clergymen by having them point blindly to a place on his office globe and pretending they point to Ketchikan, Alaska, but the one person truly deserving of banishment, the predatory Kurtwell, actually points to Ketchikan. Sister Antonia’s charity is the only public journey Lenny decides to make, leading him to uncover her misdeeds. And he receives a letter from a young boy echoing a question in his own mind, the subject of his first public sermon: what is God? In the same vein, we can say that some incidents show God pulling Lenny’s leg. God gives him an attractive blonde (C├ęcile de France) for a PR chief, so that the one part of the bureaucracy that’s totally on board with his agenda is led by the exact opposite of a traditional clergyman; and He denies Lenny confession, in that the only time we see him genuinely opening up about his spiritual state of mind, he’s confessing to an African priest who knows no English. Even giving Lenny Peter’s seat in the first place seems like a grand joke in view of Lenny’s, uh, special relationship with God. We might further include the appearance in the final episode, at long last, of his parents, and his subsequent incapacitation – God telling Lenny that his work is done (and that His work has been done).

Between the two – God’s anointing of Lenny and His messing with him – lies the small territory of true coincidence, and humor. The kangaroo later ignores him when nobody’s looking. A member of the faithful who has heard that the young new Pope smokes gives him a lighter. And then there’s that button under his desk which calls a nun to rescue him from meetings, absurdly placed so far away that there's only the pretense of subterfuge.

It’s no big exaggeration to say that The Young Pope runs the full gamut of the life experience of the highest servant of Christ. Here's hoping The New Pope is just as good.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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