Posted: April 25, 2017
blond baby crawls over a heap of infant corpses, his skin rosy against their deathly pallor. The camera pans across the heap to the figure of a blond man crawling out from underneath it. The man is Jude Law, dressed in the immaculate white vestments of a pope. He ventures forth into the Piazza di San Marco in Venice, which is empty and dark except for the lights of its renaissance arcades. Then he turns and looks back at the brilliant façade of the Basilica San Marco—obscured by an avalanche of dead babies.
This nightmare sequence, which opens the HBO limited series The Young Pope, is clearly meant as an indictment of abortion. But astonishingly, the majority of reviewers did not even mention this sequence. And the few who did pretended they were seeing something else. For example, Scott Tobias of Vulture described the heap as “a pyramid of wriggling babies.” Chris Byrd of the Catholic News Service described it as “a sea of infant mannequins.”
Not wriggling, not mannequins—these babies are clearly dead. And the living child crawling over them is clearly Lenny Belardo, emerging as a 47-year-old American who has just been elected pope, taking the name Pius XIII. Do the math, and you will see that Lenny was born in 1970, three years before Roe v. Wade. Not only that, but his parents were hippies who abandoned him to a Catholic orphanage when he was seven.
To their credit, the critics did mention the hippie parents. Indeed, in a rare consensus spanning both sides of our polarized culture, the critics agreed that The Young Pope is a black comedy about an embittered priest who gets elected pope by a clutch of cardinals hoping to control him—then surprises them all by morphing into an arch-reactionary seeking revenge not only on his hippie parents but on the whole post-1960s Church.
This consensus does a disservice to Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian director who created The Young Pope. But perhaps we should not blame the critics. This may be the golden age of long-form TV, but most publications still schedule reviews to coincide with the debut of a new series, thereby putting the critic in the awkward position of having to judge a ten-hour program on the basis of the first episode. This timing may work for fluffy sitcoms and formulaic dramas, but not for works of art. And The Young Pope is nothing less. Instead of the quirky black comedy described by the critics, it builds, like a great novel or symphony, to a denouement so magnificent, I wonder how it could possibly be followed by a second season (although one is being planned).
This essay will reveal aspects of the plot, but don’t worry about spoilers. Knowing the overall trajectory of this remarkable series only enhances the experience of watching it. Personally, I have watched it twice—once to figure out whether or not I could trust it, and again to savor its ravishing beauty, sly humor, and sagacious blend of reverence and irreverence. I strongly recommend trusting it the first time around.
From One Extreme to the Other
After his nightmare of dead babies, Lenny appears to wake up. Gradually he makes his way through the Apostolic Palace—a spooky, surreal place where everything moves in slow motion to eerie music—until he approaches the balcony of St. Peter’s, where an immense, cheering crowd waits in a driving rain. Stepping out on the balcony, he raises his arms to the dark, roiling storm clouds, which obligingly part. The square fills with sunshine, and the new Pope Pius XIII delivers a homily that would not have been out of place at the 1969 Woodstock Festival:
What have we forgotten? …We have forgotten you! …I’m here to serve you! …What else have we forgotten? We have forgotten to masturbate!
Forging ahead, he adds that Catholics have also “forgotten” to use contraceptives, obtain abortions, enjoy gay sex, encourage gay marriage (including between priests), euthanize themselves, divorce their spouses, let nuns say Mass, and place their faith in genetic engineering.
In short, my dear, dear children, …we have forgotten to be happy. There is only one road that leads to happiness. And that road is called freedom!
Before you grab the remote, behold the crowd’s response. Despite the sunshine and the giddy message, the people in the square are visibly crestfallen. Some frown or hang their heads; others cry. The promise of personal liberation is not striking a responsive chord.
Then Lenny wakes up, for real this time. And the story of his papacy begins—with a tug-of-war between two main characters: Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised Lenny and now serves, reluctantly, as his chief counselor; and Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the cardinal secretary of state who conspired to elect Lenny and now struggles, comically, to control him. Another key character is Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara), the Spanish priest with the sorrowful face of a Byzantine icon.
Keep an eye on Bernardo—his faith and humility are a light in Lenny’s darkness. The first hint that this is more than a black comedy appears in the second episode, when Bernardo is walking with Lenny in the Vatican Museum. Asked how he became a priest, Bernardo confesses:
I heard the call right here, when I was sixteen. Right here, where May afternoons land. That light spoke to me and said, “Be calm, Bernardo, be calm. The boy has become a man.” My mother, my father, they were here with me. They looked at me, but they were no longer themselves. I was no longer myself. “Where do afternoons land?” the voice of conscience asked. “They land here,” I replied. And the voice responded calmly, “Yes, it’s true, but I will continue to protect the boy.”
At this time, Lenny is being pressured to deliver as his first public homily a bland, feel-good address written by Voiello, which greets the faithful and urges them to “look joyfully” on one another because “God is love.” Lenny has been practicing these words, but they stick in his craw. As he confides in Sister Mary,
I can’t see God because I can’t see my mother and father…. No one loves me. That’s why I’m prepared to see the vileness in everyone.
Cut to a tour bus full of happy Catholics traveling to greet the new pope, singing what appears to be the Italian equivalent of “Kumbaya.” Then cut to St. Peter’s Square, where a huge, cheering crowd has gathered. Lenny is still practicing the feel-good speech, but as he approaches the balcony, Bernardo whispers, “Let yourself go, Your Holiness.” Lenny whispers back, “What if the saint here were you, Gutierrez?”
Then, out on the balcony, Pope Pius XIII turns his back to the happy crowd, denying them a view of his handsome face, and delivers a very different homily, one that would not have been out of place in a secret meeting of 17th-century French Jansenists:
What have we forgotten? …We have forgotten God! …I want to be very clear with you. You have to be closer to God than to each other. I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know that I will never be close to you. Because everyone is alone before God…. And He isn’t interested in us until we become interested in Him …Exclusively! Twenty-four hours a day! Hearts and minds filled only with God! …No room for free will, no room for liberty, no room for emancipation. “Free yourself from God,” I’ve heard people say …But the pain of liberation is unbearable, sharp enough to kill. Without God you are as good as dead.
Much as my Calvinist ancestors would have applauded this homily, it turns out to be an even bigger flop than the Woodstock one in Lenny’s dream. The crowd recoils, the media go ballistic, church attendance plummets, donations dwindle, and vocations decline. The onus is on Voiello, along with Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), the American bishop who mentored Lenny and now burns with envy at his elevation, to reverse the damage. So they hatch a plot to bring down the new pope by persuading Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the wife of a Vatican Swiss guard, to seduce him.
Esther and her husband are desperate to conceive a child, and she has already asked Lenny to pray for them. She agrees to Voiello’s plot, but reluctantly, insisting that the pope “only cares about my soul.” “You don’t know him,” says Voiello. But she does. Later, in the Vatican garden, she contrives to place Lenny’s hand on her breast while Voiello and crew, hidden behind a nearby monument, snap photos. But Lenny withdraws his hand, saying, “It would be wonderful to love you…but I’m a coward, like all priests.” Seeing this, Voiello and his crew put down their cameras.
Here Lenny surprises not only the cardinals but also the viewers at home, because if long-form TV has conditioned us to expect anything, it has conditioned us to expect every onscreen encounter between a good-looking man and woman to result in fantastic, hot, amazing sex. Not this time.
Soon after this incident, Lenny brings the cardinals to heel—literally—by convening them in the Sistine Chapel for his first formal address. And formal it is. To the wildly inappropriate but also weirdly appropriate electronic dance hit “Sexy and I Know It,” he dons the stiff, bejeweled vestments of previous centuries, and the three-tiered, gold-and-silver tiara last worn by Paul VI (who abandoned it in 1964 as a gesture of solidarity with the poor). Then to a very different soundtrack—“Song for Athene” by the 20th-century British composer John Tavener—Pope Pius XIII makes his entrance atop the sedia gestatoria, or portable throne carried by 12 footmen and flanked by the flabella, or massive ceremonial fans made of white ostrich feathers.
My Calvinist ancestors would not have applauded this homily, because rather than assert God’s absolute sovereignty over man, it asserts Pius XIII’s absolute sovereignty over his subjects, especially the proud, red-clad princes seated below. Jude Law’s delivery of this speech is stunning, one of the high points of an extraordinary performance. With greater force than any living authoritarian dictator, Pius XIII denounces everything progressive, egalitarian, relativistic, therapeutic, and extroverted about the contemporary Catholic Church. “From this day forth,” he concludes,
the word compromise has been banished from the vocabulary. I’ve just deleted it. When Jesus willingly mounted the cross, he was not making compromises. And neither am I. Amen.
With this, the papal foot is extended in its red satin slipper. The first to approach is Spencer, Lenny’s envious mentor, who begrudgingly bends to kiss it. Next is Voiello, too stiff-necked to bend until the other papal foot presses down on his shoulder. There can be no doubt that the others will follow.
The Dark Wood of Selfie Sticks
What does lenny do with his newfound power? All-too-human things, such as humiliating the cardinals and outfoxing the arrogant Italian prime minister. But he also works wonders. In the scene following the address in the Sistine Chapel, he and Esther meet again in the Vatican garden. “I have to confess,” she says. “To God alone,” he interrupts. Then he adds, “But I forgive you.” Suddenly and miraculously, a sunbeam touches a nearby lily, and it blooms. In that same moment, Esther understands that she is pregnant. And we understand that Lenny is responsible, although not in any way that his enemies can use against him.
One of the more telling exchanges in The Young Pope is between Voiello and Sister Mary. Early in the second episode Voiello asks, sardonically, why she considers Lenny a saint. Tartly she replies: “By saint I don’t mean a good man. I mean a saint.” It takes a while for her meaning to emerge, because in many ways, Lenny is exactly what his envious mentor Spencer accuses him of being: “a terrible pope” whose anger against the Church is nothing more than the rage of “a vindictive little boy” against the parents who abandoned him.
It would be a mistake, though, to reduce the character of Lenny to a psychological wound inflicted in boyhood. Don’t we all bear such wounds? And isn’t it a mistake, all too typical of our narcissistic culture, to make those wounds the defining fact of our humanity? In a process too complex to summarize here, Lenny seeks redemption through his pain—with the help of his surrogate mother, Sister Mary, and his surrogate brother, Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), a fellow orphan also turned priest.
If Lenny is impossible to seduce, Andrew is easy. Indeed, his love for his parishioners back in Honduras includes an unfortunate penchant for lusty threesomes with a hunky youth and the wife of a powerful drug lord. But Andrew is not a cliché, much less a sexual cliché. Transferred to Rome, he makes a thoughtless pass at a young Italian boy who has just been rejected for the priesthood because of “sexual disturbances”—and when the boy commits suicide, Andrew finds himself lost, like Dante, in a dark wood (“per una selva oscura”).
Like Jep, the aging celebrity in Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty, which won the 2014 Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film, Andrew is tired of hedonism. But unlike Jep, Andrew finds no solace in beauty. In this he resembles the more decadent citizens of Rome. Invited to a party at the mansion of a rich couple, he gets so drunk that, when the wife makes an unsavory pass, he collapses in laughter. The ugly pathos of the scene is captured in a single frame: a tall, elegant bookshelf filled with ancient leather-bound volumes and a small, gorgeous painting of the Madonna—and in front of it, a half-dozen raised selfie sticks. For Andrew, the dark wood is the company of people who care nothing for beauty, only for images of themselves.
Andrew comes to a sad end, but not before helping Lenny take a step or two further toward redemption. I don’t mean this metaphorically. The miracle of Esther’s pregnancy is impressive, but as Lenny’s story unfolds, we witness others that are even more impressive. One is from Lenny’s youth, a dramatic act of healing that he refuses to discuss with Andrew, because “I only want to talk about things I can understand.” Other miracles occur in the present, on the few occasions when Lenny’s prayers reach a high level of intensity.
Watching these scenes is a heady experience, because they are presented without apology and with the same dazzling artistry as the rest of the series. But that raises a question: what does beauty mean to Sorrentino? Is it a trick of our senses, a fleeting pattern that creates the illusion of transcendence? Or is it actual transcendence, a Beatrice for our Dante? The Great Beauty begins with an epigraph from French novelist Louis-Ferdinand Céline: “Our journey is entirely imaginary, which is its strength.” Look carefully at the stunning final sequence of The Young Pope, and you will see a figure in the clouds. Is that figure entirely imaginary? Sorrentino doesn’t say. But the story ends with a vision so beautiful, it suggests the hand of God.