During my bout with the delta form of Corona Virus last month, I was given DVD’s of The Young Pope and the New Pope with Jude Law as a convalescence gift. As a priest, I must admit that I did not dislike HBO’s series The Young Pope —10 episodes— and the sequel The New Pope —9 episodes—, which, did indeed make me contemplate upon God.
The Neapolitan director screenwriter and author, Paolo Sorrentino (51) places God on the stage, affirms Him, denies Him, seeks Him, refuses Him, invokes Him, “curses” Him; yet God, always remains the protagonist within these episodes and with Him humanity and their questions about Him. These are the great challenge that confront humanity and therefore, as far as I am concerned, the director has already won.
The Young Pope stars Jude Law whom is excellently portrayed as the unmanageable, cherry coke drinking Pope Pius XIII “I intend to spark a revolution” and Diane Keaton as the Pope’s confidante and Private Secretary Sister Mary, in a Vatican City and Apostolic Palace filled with its customary mysteries, intrigues, eccentricities and perversions, highlighting some of the real dilemmas that the church has faced in the last 20 to 30 years.
The young, Lenny Cardinal Belardo, is unexpectedly elected Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, Sovereign of the Vatican State, Bishop of Rome and apostolic successor of Saint Peter, after the Machiavellian machinations of the leading “Papabile” contenders to gain the throne of Peter for themselves fails dramatically. Lenny Cardinal Belardo assumes the name of Pius XIII and proceeds to challenge the established traditions and practices within the Vatican. He installs Sister Mary, the nun who raised him in an orphanage, to serve as his private secretary and adviser. Driven by his desire to confront his parents, who abandoned him as a young boy, Pius XIII turns the church back toward an entirely traditionalist orientation, causing utter confusion and disruption both inside and out of the Vatican.
The New Pope is a continuation The Young Pope, Jude Law reprising his role as Pope Pius XIII, and Cardinal Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich) as Pope John Paul III, the new pope. After nine months and several failed heart transplants, Pope Pius XIII remains in a comatose state, and in spite of that seems to have developed a cult following; the faithful begin to revere him as a living saint. On the advice of Bauer, an Ambassador of the Holy See, the Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) decides that a new pope needs to be elected in order to prevent the comatose Pius XIII from being placed on a pedestal to be idolised. Voiello realises that a papal conclave would not elect him as Pope, he and his allies engaging in the customary tactical voting of a conclave to prevent his doppelgänger Cardinal Hernández (also played by Orlando minus that prominent facial mole) from being selected.
Instead the Conclave elects mild-mannered Tommaso Cardinal Viglietti (Marcello Romolo), a fervent disciple of Saint Francis of Assisi, in the hope of influencing him by substitution. Adopting Francis II as his pontifical regnal name, Viglietti quickly acclimates to his new powers and introduces profound charitable reforms to the church, such as allowing masses of refugees shelter in the Vatican, taking full control of the Vatican Archives and the finances in the Vatican Bank with the intent of giving it all away, whilst also insisting that the College of Cardinals must surrender all of their princely symbols (pectoral crosses and rings). These reforms, and the Pope’s intent to laicise (defrock) Cardinal Voiello, cause Angelo Cardinal Voiello and his doppelgänger Hernández to plot to replace him with the more moderate Sir John Cardinal Brannox, who had been the № 3 papabile choice during the election. Francis II suffers what appears to be a heart attack and dies, implied to have been orchestrated by nefarious U.S. Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary to the Holy See Bauer (Mark Ivanir) who comes across as a veritable Russian Prestupnaya crime boss and CIA assassin rolled into one. Pope Pius XIII, having remained comatose for months now, finally moves his pinky finger suggesting that he may have caused a miracle.
Tonight the last poison, for many who are following Sorrentino’s Young Pope, I too am more and more surprised by this monumental work by the Neapolitan filmmaker which has caused me to reflect upon faith, the big questions about God and the Purpose of us before God.
I know quite well that within many ecclesiastical circles —especially within the Dicasteries of the Roman Curia, the Secretariat of State and in the corridors of Domus Sanctae Marthae— the series has been watched with a pinch of suspicion, episcopal grunts of displeasure, and perhaps has already been labelled and filed —albeit erroneously— as insulting, irreverent and sacrilegious; I on the other hand believe this to be a work of great spirituality by Sorrentino, as it poses the questions that humanity has always asked itself and which today we struggle with when we ask them, yet these questions remain and will always remain great monuments of philosophical and theological exploration. I believe that the series may also be a good cause for introspection within the Vatican corridors of power as my own bishop was quite apt to repeat “my Son, quiet introspection can be extremely valuable!”
The questions of all times yet posited in a new and original language that may be of interest to both theologians and the Church as a whole from a point of view of the method, intersecting new words in order to understand the world. The style of La grande bellezza returns most powerfully, but is overcome by a provocation of meanings which, in the frames studied one by one, one seems to want to count upon an entirely different path of research.
Talking of Church is only a pretext, what really emerges from these episodes is whether it is still possible to proclaim and make God known to humanity of today. The Papal Court, the Secretariat of State and the dicasteries of the Roman Curia with their multifarious contradictions remain inconspicuous behind the scenes, although they do tread upon the stage to guide the narration, giving latitude to the suggestive dialogues, mostly the monologues of those who have laboriously sought the answers within themselves, of those who are still interested in the ultimate questions of our existence, on our ending, and the why, beyond all history.
It is precisely this aspect which fascinated me the most in this HBO production. HBO having invested great amounts of capital (GBP £34 million) and resources in a product that, if it were not presented as a television series, would certainly have been an Oscar candidate for the courage with which, each scheme proposes the idea of God to a irreligious, desacralised and now almost pagan society. Sorrentino chooses as his first interlocutor a young pope but with old traits, a man of power, a presumptuous and weak man of affection, beautiful yet poetically fragile, in our era, the Vicar of Christ clothed in his anxieties, a man of God who more than any other should know Him, but who more than any other is plagued by doubts, a man who goes beyond the character, icon of a time when an image dominates upon everything, but where the sweeping decadence is manifestly the victor.
Even within the church, but also beyond its encircling walls, equally and worse, the power of mediocrity is noticeably, afflicted by its need to escape anonymity by every means possible and at any cost. In The Young Pope, Sorrentino answers questions about the sense of life, on history, on the why’s of injustices, of pain, of suffering by putting on the pope’s lips, words that should belong to the man who pioneered meaning, words that came from great medieval people whom, amidst heresies and dogma, amidst fires and canonisation’s, made the birth of freedom of speech possible, those great ideas that brought into existence Europe and the current state of the world.
Its a pope who returns to speak of God and does it with the suffering of inquiry, with the contrasting ‘black and white’ of psychoanalysis, with a desire not to mortify intelligence and allow humanity however to remain human, not a puppet, not a caricature, always standing upright without servility, without infantilisms, without mythical and superstitious superstructures. Where is God, where is His mercy, but where is humanity going, the questions of all time, but the novelty lies precisely within placing that spiritual and intellectual quest back to the center of this world and without which its destiny, and despite the different answers, the fate of this world is doomed to barbarism.
Questions that cause fear, which do not make an audience, but thanks to the genius invention of a cinecamera can once again generate interest for the general public. It takes courage to overturn the easy and advantageous talk of a mere church charitable agency, interesting only if it does good and does not say why, that it gets its hands dirty for the poor and often betrays, but its choice is never understood.
Because in truth speaking of God and of the ultimate goal, searching for the man of thought, is perhaps, not at all convenient for the church, it does not create an audience nor does it procure customers. If the media speaks of the Pope or the Church it will normally speak of ecclesiastical structure, ethics, scandals, travel and politics, never about God. The articles written by Francis when he scolds the powerful, when he offers mercy for those that have been marginalised, but why does he do it, whatever design he is responding to is unknown, doesn’t matter, and no one asks.
The Neapolitan director screenwriter and author, Paolo Sorrentino (51) places God on the stage, affirms Him, denies Him, seeks Him, refuses Him, invokes Him, “curses” Him; yet God, always remains the protagonist within these episodes and with Him humanity and their questions about Him. These are the great challenge that confront humanity and therefore, as far as I am concerned, the director has already won. In Paolo Sorrentino we trust…