Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope provides a test for millennial atheists

The director’s Jude Law-starring drama shows the seductive power of religion in uncertain times.


Jamie Mackay

On 13 March, 2013 the Argentinean Jesuit and one time nightclub bouncer Jorge Mario Bergoglio was appointed Pope, adopting the name of Francis as a gesture of compassion towards the poor. A people’s ruler – anti-consumerist, environmentalist and defender of refugees – his public statements have been widely celebrated as a brave attempt to liberalise the Vatican for the 21st century.

The Young Pope, the new series by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, inverts the Church’s recent turn towards inclusivity and social engagement, substituting the relatively progressive energies of the current leadership with an apocalyptic version of doctrinaire Catholicism. His fictional pontiff, played by Jude Law, is the anti-Francis, an arch-conservative serving under the appropriately austere name Pius XIII.

The series opens with a dream in which the new Pope stands before a sun-drenched St Peter’s celebrating masturbation, contraceptives and gay marriage. “Absurd things!” he says on waking, setting the tone for what is to come. His actual homily, ending with a melodramatic crash of thunder, is filled with fire and brimstone, “God isn’t interested in us until we become interested in him exclusively” he riles, “24 hours a day your hearts and minds filled only with God, there’s no room for anything else, no room for liberty, no room for emancipation!”

Law’s Pope is aggressive and socially awkward, a tempestuous ball of nervous energy surrounded by a guileful clique of crimson robed cardinals. From his breakfast of cherry coke and insatiable smoking habit to his weak grasp of the Italian language, Pius is an alien in the corridors of the Vatican, sustained by endorphin hits and paralysed by paranoia. “Friendly relationships are dangerous,” he warns, “they lend themselves to ambiguities, misunderstandings and conflicts and they always end badly.” Only the Machiavellian Cardinal Voiello, a pragmatic intellectual, dares to confront the new Pope, quietly plotting a coup “to save the Mother Church” behind a well rehearsed guise of devotion.

The ensuing drama, which follows Voiello’s attempt to sabotage Pius’s homosexual witch-hunt, is structured around a series of oppositions: Italian versus American, liberal versus conservative, history versus technology, dreams versus reality. Each theme is reinforced visually through Luca Bigazzi’s masterful cinematography, a longtime Sorrentino collaborator who also lensed 2013’s The Great Beauty. The devout gaze of pilgrims are interspersed with the tired eyes and yawns of journalists and TV crews, kangaroos run wild in Renaissance gardens while Nuns play football and old men in crimson robes tap frenetically at their iPads. The soundtrack – a mix of trip-hop, synth-pop and techno – reinforces these juxtapositions, wrapping the magisterial buildings in a neon parody of postmodernism.

The result is a tight poetic story-world, well defined in its limits, its polemical logic and artistic message. This is a reflexive meditation on the malleability of symbols in the age of social media, and, as the title suggests, the difficulty of communicating between generations. “The church thinks in centuries” says one of the lawyers in 2015’s Catholic Church sex scandal drama, Spotlight, “do you think your paper has the resources to take that on?” The Young Pope takes this disjunction of temporalities to its extreme. How, it asks, can an institution that thinks in such long arcs communicate with today’s youth, who devour information in microseconds, and have seemingly no capacity for memory?

The answer, which Pius delivers in a lecture to his head of communications, lies in mystery. “I do not have an image because I am no one” he declares, “they will not see anything of me, except for a dark shadow, my silhouette.” The Vatican photographer is fired, merchandise halted and orders given to hide the Pope’s face during his speeches. In a world obsessed with curating images and generating spectacle, Sorrentino suggests, it is precisely the mystery of the Pope that sustains the power of the Church. “The Vatican survives thanks to hyperbole and we shall generate hyperbole. But this time in reverse” Pius concludes in a micro-manifesto of his grand plan.

For all its stylised visuals and Fargo-esque humour, what really distinguishes Sorrentino as a director is his ability to convey a convincing psychological narrative amidst the power games. Early on we discover that Pius, an orphan, does not believe in God. It is an unexpected revelation coming from such a severe character and packs a surprising emotional punch. As the episodes progress we follow his pained relationship with his former mentor, his adopted mother and finally Esther, the show’s femme fatale, as he struggles with his crisis of faith. These moments of empathy give the show an impressive depth that anchors the satire and, more importantly, stop it ever feeling cheap.

Published 7 Nov 2016

Tags: Catholic Church Jude Law Paolo Sorrentino Religion The Pope

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