If you have not been watching HBO’s The Young Pope you haven’t missed anything of any consequence. All you’ve missed is some really well photographed surreal absurdity.
If Italian writer/director Paolo Sorrentino is Catholic, or was raised Catholic and still claims to be Catholic, he needs to go to confession. Yesterday, if not sooner. And maybe public penance should be brought back.
On the other hand, Sorrentino may not be Catholic. This also could explain the fantastical and ridiculous ideas he has about the Catholic Church, the Vatican, the Papacy, and the Clergy.
Thus far, after six episodes, Sorrentino’s ideas on how a young, American pope might act and how he might lead the Church, and on what takes place in the Vatican on a daily basis, are outlandish. His ideas on what Cardinals, Bishops, and priests really think and how they conduct themselves, and the role nuns play in the Church are, well, twisted. And his suggestion that fully three-quarters of the clergy are really homosexual is over the top.
In an interview I read some months back, Sorrentino asked that people refrain from judging the series until all 10 episodes have aired. I am going to go out on a limb, however, and, offer an opinion after watching just the first six episodes. I hope that once the planned 10 episodes have all aired the series gets dropped like a hot rock. The acting is very good and the photography and production values are first rate, but these are the only redeeming qualities the series has offered thus far.
In The Young Pope, the first American pope, Pius XIII, aka Lenny Belardo, is being portrayed as an enigma. For instance, what does he really believe about the nature of God? He goes to confession but has no sins to confess. Is he really a saint or is he deceiving everyone, including himself?
The first five episodes establish the enigma that is Lenny through an oftentimes confusing mishmash of Lenny’s first few days as Pope, flashbacks to Lenny’s orphanage days, and a number of bizarre dream sequences.
Along with Lenny, the main clerical characters are Cardinal Angelo Voiello, Cardinal Michael Spencer, Sister Mary, and Cardinal Andrew Dussolier. Two non-clerics who are main characters are Sofia, the woman in charge of marketing the Holy See, and Esther, a young, attractive wife of a Swiss Guard who desperately wants to become pregnant.
Voiello is the Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State. He is portrayed as a scheming, politician first and a Cardinal second. His worst fear is that he won’t be able to control Lenny. But since plot twists are always neat ideas, Voiello could end being a character who is actually the most God fearing.
Cardinal Michael Spencer, who is Lenny’s mentor and the former Archbishop of New York, is portrayed as an ambitious and now bitter old man (“I was supposed to be elected Pope!”).
Sister Mary is a nun who raised Lenny after he was brought to her orphanage at about 10 years of age. Lenny brings her to Rome as his personal secretary. She is the only character, thus far, who might be considered somewhat ‘normal’ – a devout nun who likes to play basketball, who cares about both Lenny’s spiritual well-being and the Church.
Cardinal Andrew Dussolier is Lenny’s best friend. He and Lenny grew up together at the orphanage. Andrew and Lenny are Sister Mary’s “boys,” but as we find out in episode six, Andrew is not upholding his vow of celibacy.
Sofia, an American like Lenny, is intrigued by the new Pope but also confused about how she will be able to market the Pope since he refuses to be photographed.
Little Plot Twists
Voiello’s scheming comes to light in the fourth episode when he tells Esther that he wants her to seduce Lenny so he and his clique can blackmail Lenny and get him to resign the papacy. The young pope was supposed to be a compromise candidate that Voiello and the other old guard Cardinals could control but Lenny is anything but controllable. He foils the plan because, as he tells Voiello, he knows everyone’s secrets.
Lenny also “accidently” observes Esther and her husband having carnal relations in episode three and he immediately drops to his knees and prays to God to allow Esther to become pregnant. (At the end of episode five viewers are meant to believe that Esther’s prayer to have a child has been granted when a plant miraculously flowers in Esther’s and Lenny’s presence.)
The first four episodes more or less lead up to Lenny’s address to the College of Cardinals, which finally takes place near the end of episode five. A hint of his plans was offered in his first public address as Pope in episode two when he tells the world that he wants everyone to devote themselves to God unconditionally. Now, in episode five, Lenny tells the Cardinals his full vision for the Church.
“I want fanatics for God because fanaticism is love. I want absolute love and total devotion to God,” Lenny tells the Cardinals. Ecumenism is no more, evangelization is done, and tolerance is out, he says.
“The liturgy will no longer be a social engagement it will be hard work and sin will no longer be forgiven at will,” he says.
“From this day forth the word compromise has been banished from the vocabulary. I just deleted it.”
In short, Lenny wants a Church that is made up of true believers who are “reliable” rather than a bunch of people who are just hanging around, calling themselves Catholic. Liberalism in the Church is out and strict adherence to doctrine is in.
Nine Months Later
In episode six, now nine months after Lenny’s address to the Cardinals, Voiello starts things off telling Lenny that as a result if his (Lenny’s) extreme rhetoric revenues are down throughout the world and visitors have stopped coming to the Vatican. Lenny says it’s to be expected, but that the faithful will return. Confused and exasperated Voiello asks Lenny, “Who are you really?”
Also, in episode six Esther’s baby is born, a son that she and her husband name Pius. Lenny also meets with the Prime Minister of Italy and during the highly contentious meeting, Lenny presents him with a list of actions that he wants the Prime Minister to take that Lenny says will make Italy a better country, such as banning abortion and same-sex marriage. In response, the Prime minister (possibly a secular-progressive socialist and atheist) responds by saying he intends to start taxing the church.
Lenny also instructs his friend Cardinal Andrew Dussolier, who is now Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy (responsible for admitting new candidates for the priesthood and training them as priests) to bar any men from the priesthood who may be unable to uphold their vows of celibacy, which presumably includes suspected homosexuals. As a result of this order, a prospective student who is refused admittance to a seminary in Rome commits suicide in St. Peter’s square.
A group of monks also meets with Lenny and threatens schism unless he resigns.
What’s the Message?
It may be that Sorrentino has some kind of legitimate message to convey in regard to Catholicism that will only be revealed after watching all ten episodes. Even if this is so, his method of delivering the message is atrocious, appalling, and abhorrent. A straight drama without all the artsy, surreal dream sequences and blatant sexuality might actually have made for an interesting series.
As it stands through six episodes, however, Sorrentino is portraying the Catholic Church, the Papacy, and the clergy in a manner that anyone who is anti-Catholic will probably grab onto with both hands. It’s not hard to imagine certain types of people insisting that The Young Pope is fiction based on fact, or that it is actually portraying a reality that does exist, but one the Catholic Church has managed to keep hidden.
Fodder for Conspiracy Theorists
After watching just the first six episodes it may be too early to guess where Sorrentino plans to take The Young Pope. He may be trying to convey any number of messages: the Pope is only a man and he is not infallible; Popes are human beings and like all human beings raised to a position of power they can become autocratic; that an ultra-conservative Pope would destroy the Catholic Church; or even that Americans are egotists who think they know better than everyone else. But it’s also possible that Sorrentino has a plot twist in mind that is impossible to guess at this point.
In any case, just like the movies The Da Vinci Code and Angels and Demons, both of which had people speculating about deep, hidden secrets within the Catholic Church, The Young Pope will probably result in new unflattering speculation about the Catholic Church. The series will undoubtedly provide anti-Catholic conspiracy theorists with plenty of new fodder with which to continue tearing down the Papacy, the clergy, and the Catholic Church in general.