The Young Pope.
For a while I've been meaning to write about Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's ten-episode television series The Young Pope, which premiered on Sky Atlantic in Italy and other European countries late last year and made its U.S. debut on HBO in January. The Young Pope tells the story of an enigmatic American cardinal named Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who is unexpectedly chosen as the Successor of St. Peter at the age of forty-seven, taking the name of Pius XIII and proceeding to shake things up with a back-to-basics focus on doctrine and an unconventional personal style.
The Young Pope proved a hit with audiences and critics in Europe, but the show has drawn a more mixed reaction in the United States. Some have found the series boring or difficult to follow, others have made inapt comparisons between Jude Law's New York-reared pontiff and a certain American president, and others (who sometimes admit that they haven't actually watched the show) have lamely denounced The Young Pope as anti-Catholic (it isn't, even though the program's warts-and-all view of Vatican politics may scandalize viewers with a weak grasp of Church history).
At the same time, The Young Pope has also attracted an enthusiastic following among a particular subset of young Catholics. In a recent blogpost, Rick Yoder draws comparisons between some contemporary reactions to The Young Pope and the reception enjoyed by the BBC adaptation of Brideshead Revisited in 1981. As Yoder writes, just as "Brideshead was . . . the rallying cry and inspiration for a whole new kind of youth rebellion" led by self-described 'young fogies,' The Young Pope has been warmly welcomed by a cohort of Millennial Catholics – a group of "meme-savvy, Latin-loving, anti-liberal folks" – who share a love for Catholic tradition and a skeptical view of many of the religious and political dimensions of modernity. In a similar vein, Matthew Schmitz of First Things analyzes the popularity of The Young Pope against the backdrop of a broader divide between many Millennials and their Boomer parents (and, by now, grandparents):
Among my peers there is a vague, floating sense of dislocation and disinheritance. They have been schooled in rebellion but have nothing to rebel against. This is the cause, I think, of the enthusiasm many young people show for ritual, ceremony, and all things traditional. Having been raised in a culture of unending pseudo-spontaneity, they have had time to count its costs. They prefer more rigid forms.As Schmitz observes, "The baby boomers defined themselves by revolution, and even after that revolution failed, they refused to take on the stern trappings of authority. Rather than forbid and command, they sought to be understanding and therapeutic." A bit provocatively, Schmitz concludes that this therapeutic approach created "a generation of orphans" – not necessarily by leaving children without parents, but more broadly by leaving young people estranged from the past and forcing them to search for their own roots.
Commenting on all of this, P. J. Smith of Semiduplex observes that The Young Pope may be seen as "an extended fantasy about what happens when someone rejects liberalism as a conscious reaction to the post-1968 world." According to Smith, what is at stake here isn’t merely a desire for strong authority figures or an attachment to traditional aesthetics, but something that touches more deeply on the nature of religious belief:
But [the issue] is more than a mere abdication of authority, especially within the Church. Certainly St. John Paul and Benedict XVI projected authority — and were, we observe, wildly popular among young Catholics. No. It is a sense, we think, that something of great value has been hidden. This extends beyond liturgy and ceremony to doctrine. We could point to specific doctrines, but to do so would understate the problem. It is the idea of doctrine itself — and the implicit requirement that one conform one's belief and conduct to that doctrine — that has been hidden in many places and replaced with a soft, condescending "do your best" attitude. It is, as Schmitz says, an understanding, therapeutic mentality — and it is ultimately infantilizing. And this is, we think, part of the attraction of a "Pius XIII" figure: when he tells us, in effect, that our best is not good enough in a matter as important as our eternal salvation, whatever else he may be doing, he is not infantilizing us.Smith concludes by taking a provocative look at the preparatory document issued by the Vatican in anticipation of next year's Synod on Young People, the Faith, and Vocational Discernment. Smith finds cause for worry in the document's use of "understanding and therapeutic" language that appears to rehash past approaches and doesn't seem to acknowledge that the needs and concerns of today's young people are not the same as those attributed to youth forty or fifty years ago. If the Synod doesn't reckon with this reality but instead "offers more of the same, 1960s-vintage answers to the questions of these young Catholics," Smith warns that "the Church will be forced to revisit all of these questions sooner rather than later."
I appreciate what Schmitz, Smith, and Yoder have written about The Young Pope – indeed, I've written similar things about young Catholics, and I've done so more than once – and I should also add that Yoder has a lot more to say about the show in posts about its visual style and its music. I would be remiss, however, if I didn't write about another aspect of Sorrentino’s drama that deserves to be explored in greater detail. Whatever one might think of The Young Pope’s ecclesial politics, Sorrentino is more interested in matters that lie beyond the ecclesial and the political. What interests him most, I think, is the nature of human loneliness and solitude and the ways in which people manage them and even make them a creative force.
Questions about loneliness and human connection have permeated Sorrentino's work. His breakthrough feature The Consequences of Love (2004) focuses on a businessman whose past misdeeds have left him living an isolated existence in a Swiss hotel. The Family Friend (2006) tells the story of a misanthropic moneylender who falls in love with a customer's daughter. Il Divo (2008) treats the relationship between personal isolation and political power through a study of long-serving Italian premier Giulio Andreotti. This Must Be the Place (2011) concerns a retired rock star who copes with the death of his father by setting out on a manhunt for a Nazi war criminal who is still at large. In The Great Beauty (2013), perhaps his greatest international hit, Sorrentino offers a portrait of an aging writer struggling with ennui and feelings of failure amid the glitz of Roman high society. Youth (2015) deals with the same sorts of issues with a look at two old friends confronting the realities of aging, retirement, and questions about what they’ve really made of their lives. Sorrentino once told an interviewer that "my protagonists tend to be people who need to learn how to be in the world," which seems like a nice way of summing up the meaning of his work: coming to grips with who they are and what they have done, the denizens of Sorrentino's cinematic world also have to consider their relationships with others.
Against this backdrop, it's easy to understand why Sorrentino sees The Young Pope as another meditation on the same themes. In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sorrentino tried to explain what The Young Pope is really about:
In the final analysis, it talks about that unsettling little noise of solitude, of loneliness that's inside all of us and that never balances. Which is not the solitude of somebody who doesn't have anybody to chat with in the evening, but it is a more profound, deeper condition and sense of uneasiness [that] in the final analysis you are alone. And that's why those who have that knowledge of this solitude ask themselves the question of God.Sorrentino has said that he isn't a religious believer, but he has also admitted that the concept for The Young Pope grew out of his youthful fascination with the Catholic priests who taught him in high school in Italy, men whose lives were characterized by a kind of solitude turned toward service. Earlier this year, Sorrentino told a reporter for The Toronto Star that the goal of The Young Pope was "to investigate deeply the secret of loneliness. Real loneliness, permanent loneliness, not the more common but more superficial loneliness that consists in not having anyone to chat [with] at hand. A priest who is also incidentally a man of power like the Pope is the most emblematic example of the secret of this loneliness."
Part of the genius of The Young Pope is the way its characters grapple with "the secret of loneliness" that fascinates the show's creator. As "the young pope" who gives the series its title, Pius XIII is a man forced to wrestle with memories of childhood abandonment who also uses his reputation for inscrutability to try to direct the world's gaze away from himself and toward Jesus Christ. As the nun who raised the future pope in an orphanage, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) manages her own loneliness by devoting herself to her "two gems," orphans she raised to be princes of the Church: Lenny/Pius and his friend Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), a missionary bishop in Latin America who unsuccessfully attempts to stifle his own melancholy by pursuing an illicit affair with the wife of a local drug lord. As the Vatican's Secretary of State, Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando, in a superb performance) publicly relishes his reputation as a Machiavellian political operator (at one point, boasting about the eighteen books written about him, he says that the hostile ones are the best, "because they turn you into a legend"), but he also practices altruism in secret by spending his evenings babysitting a disabled youth. Lenny's erstwhile mentor Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) grumbles about his unfulfilled ambition of becoming pope and engages in futile schemes against his former protégé. A fragile and sensitive man who struggles with alcoholism and feels lost outside the Vatican, Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) initially seems unable to cope when sent to the United States on a sensitive papal mission but gains a sense of courage and purpose through the unlikely friendships he develops there. Dealing with a strained marriage to a Swiss Guard and frustrated in her efforts to conceive a child, Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) finds fulfillment in a rich and deep prayer life.
Whether it is in spite of his proclaimed lack of faith or because of it, Sorrentino is clearly very interested in questions of belief and transcendence. Having noted that "the question of God" often emerges in solitude, Sorrentino has also said that The Young Pope is about "the issue of faith — the question of believing or non-believing — which sooner or later affects us all." Sorrentino's fascination with this theme is perhaps that of the artist who feels compelled to take what I have elsewhere called "the last look" - the glimpse of one who can see the attraction of the Church even though he cannot bring himself to make the act of faith. Regardless of Sorrentino's personal commitments, in The Young Pope he has offered a fine exploration of the relationship between faith and personal identity. I encourage those who are interested in such things to give The Young Pope a look, and I further encourage those who know The Young Pope but nothing more of Paolo Sorrentino to give the rest of his work a try. AMDG.