Monday, December 28, 2020

Edward Gorey and the Holy Innocents.

This is a a repost of an item that originally appeared here almost seven years ago, only lightly edited. For Roman Catholics, today is the Feast of the Holy Innocents, a commemoration of the children of Bethlehem whom King Herod massacred in an attempt to kill the newborn Christ Child. (The Byzantine churches commemorate the Holy Innocents tomorrow and traditionally give the number of the children killed by Herod as fourteen thousand, though we have no way of knowing how many there actually were.) St. Stephen enjoys the title of "Protomartyr," but in a real sense the Holy Innocents were the first Christian martyrs, having lost their lives on account of the odium fidei or 'hatred of the faith' of Herod, who so feared the advent of the Messiah that he was willing to murder many innocent children in the hope of killing one who threatened his rule. As the Roman Catholic collect for this feast puts it, the Holy Innocents gave praise to God "not by speaking, but by dying," offering a source of inspiration whereby the "faith which our tongue professes may be proclaimed also by our life."

For a number of years, when I found myself visiting my family during the Christmas Octave, I would spent part of the Feast of the Holy Innocents visiting the Edward Gorey House in Yarmouth on Cape Cod. Edward Gorey (1925-2000) is perhaps most widely known in the United States as the artist who created the animated title sequence of the PBS series Mystery!, with its evocation of a dark and stormy night featuring shadowy caped figures, intrepid investigators, and damsels in distress. As an author and illustrator, Gorey produced a number of books which I and many other people I know read when we were children – books like The Doubtful Guest and The Gashlycrumb Tinies. A Chicago native who first gained notoriety while working as an illustrator for Doubleday in the 1950s, Gorey spent the better part of his career living and working in relative quiet on Cape Cod. After Gorey died in April 2000, the house in Yarmouth which he had occupied for the last twenty-one years of his life was turned into a museum devoted to his work.

The books of Edward Gorey do not lend themselves to easy or precise classification. Though often given to children to read, Gorey's work does not exactly qualify as "children’s literature." The docent who guided me through Gorey's house on my first visit to the place confidently insisted that Gorey's books are not for children but rather for sophisticated adults, but that isn't quite true either: it's hard to imagine the name of Edward Gorey on an "adult fiction" bestsellers' list, but the condescension implicit in claiming that Gorey's work is "not for children" also belies the fact that children often appreciate his books very much. Many of Gorey's books fit into the category of works that can be enjoyed by both children and adults but for different reasons: children can readily appreciate the quality of Gorey's illustrations and the cleverness of his prose; adults may likewise enjoy Gorey's images and words but can also have a lot of fun seeking to decode various allusions and even psychoanalyzing the author on the basis of his work. For example, in an illustration from the book Donald and the . . . Gorey presents the title character kneeling on his bed in a nightshirt, face-to-face with a giant, scaly (and smiling?) lizard, with the caption, "Donald imagined things." Children may enjoy the artful image and perhaps relate with Donald on some level, while adult readers may wonder what these particular imaginings say about Donald's (and Gorey's) deeper subconscious.

What makes a visit to the home of Edward Gorey an appropriate pilgrimage for the Feast of the Holy Innocents? Edward Gorey may be considered a sort of innocent, if not a notably holy one. The son of a Roman Catholic father and an Episcopalian mother, Gorey once noted in passing to an interviewer that his parents "tried to raise me as a Catholic" but that the religion never really took, not on account of any outward act of rebellion but due to youthful ennui. ("Looking back on my childhood," Gorey said, "I seem to have had no motivations whatever.") As an adult, Gorey was a creature of habit with an inflexible and sometimes idiosyncratic sense of routine: while living in Manhattan he would attend nearly every performance of the New York City Ballet, and during his years on the Cape he would dine every day at the same Yarmouth restaurant, Jack's Outback (in token of this last association, the Edward Gorey House includes a month's worth of Gorey's receipts from the Outback framed on the wall as a sort of calendar). Though he had many friends, Gorey claimed to have "very little social life" and seems not to have had any romantic relationships; when asked about his sexual orientation, he described himself as "asexual" or "undersexed." For all of his quirks, Gorey also firmly denied that he was an eccentric, once insisting that "I don't think I’m quite as odd as others say I am."

Edward Gorey also proclaimed a certain kind of innocence regarding his own work. When biographer Alexander Theroux asked Gorey to explain what his books were about, Gorey replied, "I don't even know." On another occasion, as reported in one of his obituaries, Gorey said that "I know that the books are about something, not what they seem to be about . . . but I don't know what the other thing is." Gorey's reticence about the interpretation of his own work contrasted with his apparent volubility on other topics; as Theroux observed of Gorey, "There wasn't a subject that didn't interest him. . . . He went to the movies almost every night. He could segue from reading a book on Wittgenstein to watching The Golden Girls.” At the same time, where his own work was concerned, Gorey adamantly insisted that he didn't know what all the fuss was about: "I really think I write about everyday life. . . . Life is intrinsically, well, boring and dangerous at the same time. At any given moment the floor may open up. Of course, it almost never does; that's what makes it so boring."

Whether or not Gorey intended it to be so, innocence plays a significant if strikingly ambiguous role in much of his work. Many of Gorey's books depict children and adults dressed in early twentieth-century formalwear, interacting in vaguely old-fashioned settings far from the Cape Cod residence in which he did a lot of his work. The imagined past in which Gorey set his stories may seem at first glance to be an age of innocence, yet it is a place where very sinister events take place. The Gashlycrumb Tinies may perhaps be taken as emblematic of the darker aspect of Gorey's work, as an A-to-Z class of young pupils ("After the Outing," in Gorey's subtitle, perhaps suggesting a school fieldtrip chaperoned by Death) meet their demise in twenty-six unique tragedies presented in rhyming couplets (e.g., "M is for Maud who was swept out to sea / N is for Neville who died of ennui"). As a group the Gashlycrumb Tinies might be regarded as Gorey's representative Holy Innocents, but they are far from the only such unfortunates whom Gorey would write about: in The Insect God, for instance, young Millicent Frastley ("not yet five") is captured by bugs, "sewed . . . into a kind of pod," and offered as a sacrifice to the deity who gives the work its title.

Edward Gorey's work is full of children – and adults – facing misfortune or, like Donald in his bedroom, confronting the unknown. Gorey's characters and readers move from innocence to a sort of wary knowledge that is, at best, frustratingly incomplete: we may note well the experience of the prim and proper family in Gorey's early book The Doubtful Guest, who have to contend with a strange, birdlike creature that abruptly takes up residence in their household and, after seventeen years, "has shown no intention of going away." In the "boring and dangerous" world of Edward Gorey, the loss of innocence leads not to maturity and a new sense of self but rather to instability and ambiguity. As grim as Gorey's imagined worlds could be, his work still retains a particular verve that can't help but set many readers chuckling and smiling even as they read about doubtful guests, rhyming freak accidents, and even insects who engage in kidnapping and human sacrifice. Absent this strange joie de vivre, it seems unlikely that Gorey would have become such a cult figure, still selling books years after his death and drawing a steady trickle of fans to visit a cramped house on Cape Cod, even in the middle of winter.

Though he grew up in Chicago and began his career in New York, Gorey's choice to spend the last several decades of his life on Cape Cod means that Massachusetts can claim him as one of her own. In spite of his eccentric persona, Gorey lived at the heart of his community: the Edward Gorey House sits on a typical Massachusetts town common – flagpole, old white church, shingled houses, and so on. To my mind, there is a quintessential New England quality to the story of Gorey’s life in Yarmouth - the famous author living quietly but openly in the middle of town, proudly embraced by the locals in spite of his quirks yet also left alone and permitted to enjoy a measure of solitude. If you find yourself passing through at a time when the place is open, you might think of making a visit to the Edward Gorey House - and when you do, perhaps you will spare a thought for the Holy Innocents, both those residing in Bethlehem in the days of Herod and those residing in the mind of Edward Gorey.

Friday, December 25, 2020

A new and wondrous mystery.

Returning to a longtime tradition of this blog, I would like to extend my prayerful best wishes to all readers who celebrate Christmas today, marking the occasion by sharing part of a Nativity sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom:

I behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd's song, piping no soft melody but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn.

The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory.

All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He Who is above, now, for our redemption, dwells here below; and he that was lowly is raised up by divine mercy.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven: she hears from the stars the singing of angelic voices; in place of the sun, she enfolds within herself on every side the Sun of Justice.

Ask not how - where God wills, the order of nature yields. He willed, He had the power, He descended, He redeemed, and all things move in obedience to God.

This day He Who Is is born, and He Who Is becomes what He was not.

Christ is born! Glorify him!

Monday, November 02, 2020

Dies irae, dies illa.

In conformity with established custom, for All Souls' Day I am reposting a translation of the Latin sequence for All Souls that I made a few years ago. Typically attributed to the thirteenth-century Franciscan Thomas of Celano and long prescribed as part of the Latin Requiem Mass, the Dies Irae enjoys a special place in Western musical culture thanks to the memorable settings of the Requiem text by composers ranging from Mozart to Verdi to Britten, among many others. For All Souls, I typically avoid any 'classical' setting of the Dies Irae in favor of the traditional Gregorian setting, because sometimes only Gregorian chant will do.

Below you can find the Latin text of the Dies Irae followed by my own English translation. I decided to translate the text myself out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the various translations that I found online, as a spiritual exercise for All Souls' Day - and, finally, to practice my Latin. The translation was made in haste and could certainly be improved - indeed, I have sometimes thought of starting from scratch and doing a new one - and I welcome comments and criticism; my goal was to convey the meaning of the original faithfully without trying to reproduce the poetic meter of the original. So here goes:

Dies irae! Dies illa
Solvet saeclum in favilla:
Teste David cum Sibylla!

Quantus tremor est futurus,
Quando iudex est venturus,
Cuncta stricte discussurus!

Tuba mirum spargens sonum
Per sepulchra regionum,
Coget omnes ante thronum.

Mors stupebit, et natura,
Cum resurget creatura,
Iudicanti responsura.

Liber scriptus proferetur,
In quo totum continetur,
Unde mundus iudicetur.

Iudex ergo cum sedebit,
Quidquid latet, apparebit:
Nil inultum remanebit.

Quid sum miser tunc dicturus?
Quem patronum rogaturus,
Cum vix iustus sit securus?

Rex tremendae maiestatis,
Qui salvandos salvas gratis,
Salva me, fons pietatis.

Recordare, Iesu pie,
Quod sum causa tuae viae:
Ne me perdas illa die.

Quaerens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.

Iuste iudex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis
Ante diem rationis.

Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus.

Qui Mariam absolvisti,
Et latronem exaudisti,
Mihi quoque spem dedisti.

Preces meae non sunt dignae:
Sed tu bonus fac benigne,
Ne perenni cremer igne.

Inter oves locum praesta,
Et ab haedis me sequestra,
Statuens in parte dextra.

Confutatis maledictis,
Flammis acribus addictis:
Voca me cum benedictis.

Oro supplex et acclinis,
Cor contritum quasi cinis:
Gere curam mei finis.

Lacrimosa dies illa,
qua resurget ex favilla
Judicandus homo reus.
Huic ergo parce, Deus:

Pie Iesu Domine,
dona eis requiem. Amen.


O day of wrath, that day
when the earth will be reduced to ashes,
as David and the Sibyl both testify!

What great fear there will be,
when the judge comes
to judge all things strictly.

A trumpet casts a wondrous sound
into the realm of the tombs,
calling all [to come] before the throne.

Death and nature will both marvel
as the [human] creature rises
to answer its judge.

A book will be brought forth
in which all things are recorded –
all that for which the world will be judged.

When, therefore, the judge appears,
all that is hidden will appear,
and no ills will remain unavenged.

As miserable as I am, what am I to say?
whose protection may I invoke,
when even the just lack security?

O most majestic King,
who freely saves those to be saved,
save me, source of mercy!

Remember, merciful Jesus,
that I am the one for whom you came:
may I not be lost on that day!

Seeking me, you sat down tired:
to redeem me, you suffered the Cross –
may your toil not be in vain!

Just and avenging judge,
may you grant remission [of sins]
before the day of reckoning.

Guilty, now I sigh,
my face red with shame:
save thy petitioner, o God!

Having absolved Mary [Magdalene],
and heard the plea of the thief,
may you give me hope as well.

Though my prayers are not worthy,
be kind to me, o Good One,
that I may be spared the eternal fire!

Place me among the sheep,
and separate me from the goats,
setting me at your right hand.

When the wicked are confounded
and given over to bitter flames:
call me among the blessed.

Meek and humble, I pray,
with a heart contrite as ashes:
Help me reach my final end.

How tearful that day will be,
when from the ashes will arise
the guilty man for judgment.
Therefore spare him, O God!

Merciful Lord Jesus,
grant them rest. Amen.

To some modern ears, some of the above lines may seem a bit harsh; the familiarity of the Latin text and the beauty of its poetic form can easily distract us from the admonitory content of the Dies Irae. As stern as these words may be, though, they also remind us that God is merciful - indeed, the very source of mercy - and they call on us to pray: first for our beloved dead and for our own repentance, but also that we may offer to others the same mercy that we seek for ourselves. May all of us who celebrate this Feast of All Souls take these words in the right way, and take them to heart.

Wednesday, September 30, 2020

The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life.

For the last couple of months, I have been meaning to write about The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life, a documentary by German filmmaker Zita Erffa that appeared on the European festival circuit a couple of years ago. I discovered the film late last year when I chanced upon the trailer on YouTube. This summer, I was pleased to learn that The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is now available for download on Vimeo. In July, I was finally able to watch the film and I resolved to write something of a review, but, with summer travels and other projects, I only recently got around to putting my thoughts into publishable form. At the very least, I hope that what I write here will gain a few more viewers for a film that deserves a wider audience.

The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life chronicles director Zita Erffa's efforts to reconcile with her younger brother László after a long period of estrangement. The children of German diplomats with noble roots, László and Zita enjoyed a privileged and cosmopolitan upbringing: a collage of family photos and clips from home videos show the siblings growing up in Namibia, India, Pakistan, and Indonesia as their parents moved from one diplomatic posting to another. Despite these frequent moves, the siblings would return to Germany every summer to spend time with relatives and to attend summer camps run by the Legion of Christ and its female branch, the Consagradas. Though Zita and László always enjoyed the camps, the director relates that she and her brother shared a discomfort for what they regarded as the more 'sectarian' aspects of the Legion; as a result, they refused to get more deeply involved with the group even as some of their closest friends became Legionaries and Consagradas. Zita thus reacted with shock – and a sense of betrayal – when László entered the Legionaries' novitiate at the age of 19. For the next seven years, Zita's contact with her brother was limited to rare visits and telephone calls and to letters which, in principle, his superiors were permitted to read. After studies in filmmaking in Munich and Mexico City, Zita eventually found the courage to contact her brother with an unusual proposition: she would come to visit him at the Legion's seminary in Cheshire, Connecticut, making a film about his life and seeking to come to terms with the decision that marked a rupture in a once-close relationship. Despite the Legionaries' reputation for secrecy, the director's request was granted.
In The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life, the viewer follows Zita Erffa to Cheshire, where she spends several days observing the Legion's seminarians as they eat, pray, go to class, play soccer, and perform chores like folding laundry and helping out in the kitchen. For Erffa, Cheshire seems strange and a bit quirky – as the director admits, the 1960s aesthetic of the seminary made her think of a Wes Anderson movie – but the seminarians prove to be surprisingly normal and well-adjusted. Interviewing her brother, Zita comes to understand that László's decision was almost as surprising to him as it was to her, inspired by a sudden moment of clarity in prayer that overcame his earlier reluctance to consider joining the Legionaries. Zita also comes to realize that, for László, the Legion provided a sense of stability that contrasted with the siblings' somewhat nomadic childhood. Through her conversations with her brother and what she learns about his life at Cheshire, Zita reconciles with László and, as the director puts it in press materials accompanying the release of the film, "I get my brother back – finally."

Though he is only mentioned in passing in the film, Legion founder Marcial Maciel represents the elephant in the room in The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life. Denounced for the sexual abuse of dozens of boys and young men – including many students and seminarians of the Legion – Maciel was removed from public ministry by Pope Benedict XVI in May 2006 and ordered to devote his remaining years to prayer and penance. Other revelations of misconduct followed Maciel's death in 2008, including admissions that he had fathered several children with different women and had embezzled funds from the Legion to support a lavish double life. A subsequent apostolic visitation of the Legion of Christ brought about reforms within the congregation as well as a public apology for Maciel's crimes.
In an interview following the release of her film, Zita Erffa emphasizes that Maciel "was not my main target" and that "this was a story about my brother." Indeed, placing more emphasis on Maciel's crimes would diminish the compelling human story that the director sets out to tell, a story that ultimately has nothing to do with the Legion's disgraced founder. Even so, Maciel's influence cannot be ignored: there is a poignant moment late in the film where László admits that the revelations regarding Maciel made his decision to enter the Legion more difficult, since he recognized that the Legionaries "were not very popular" and he had doubts about joining a congregation beset by scandal. The interaction between the siblings also makes it clear that László's decision was painful not only for Zita but also for his parents and his three younger siblings, and that the family was not upset by the idea of László becoming a priest but rather by his decision to become a Legionary in particular, given the congregation's reputation for rigidity and strict control of its members as well as its checkered public image.

For her part, Zita Erffa believes that the Legion's internal structures and culture of "blind obedience" enabled Maciel to conceal his crimes for decades. Nevertheless, the director also commends the process of reform within the Legion – a process that made her film possible, insofar as the Legionaries welcomed the filmmakers, in Erffa's words, "to show that they were not monsters, that they were not all like Maciel, and that they are changing." Though the director has emphasized that the Legionaries had no control over the editing of the film, at certain moments in The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life it becomes clear that Erffa and cinematographer Bruno Santamaría Razo were allowed to film at Cheshire precisely because the Legion saw the project as an opportunity for good PR; indeed, the title of the film comes from an apparently spontaneous remark made on camera by a Legionary priest, who breaks the fourth wall to urge viewers considering the priesthood to "come to Cheshire," because joining the Legion is "the best thing you could ever do with your life."
The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is not really about the Legionaries of Christ, but rather about how sibling relationships evolve over time as individual choices and commitments diverge and come into conflict. The film devotes particular attention to László's evolution from a teenager who vowed that he would never join the Legion to a committed member of the congregation. (Since the release of the film, László Erffa has been ordained to the priesthood and now serves the Legion's apostolates in Germany.) Though she does not speak about it on camera, Zita has also changed in her journey to adulthood. The film emphasizes the siblings' shared Catholic upbringing, including home video footage from Zita's first communion; yet, as the director acknowledges in an interview with a German online magazine, she now identifies as an agnostic and has distanced herself from institutional religion. Near the end of the film, László reminds his sister that they both "realize that there is more than what is around" and that "we are both on our way," but the scene ends before the audience is able to hear Zita react to these observations. I would have welcomed more discussion in the film about how Zita's personal commitments may have changed over time, particularly as a counterpoint to what we learn about László's own development.

As a film about sibling relationships, The Best Thing You Can Do with Your Life is also about the bonds of shared childhood experiences that transcend the differences that can separate adults. The rapprochement between Zita and László proceeds through a series of encounters between the two siblings, moving from an awkward initial meeting in an office at the seminary to an interview in the woods to an evening chat in László's bedroom. The two discuss difficult and sometimes uncomfortable topics, from the pain that László's abrupt departure caused to his family to their disagreements regarding Church teaching, but they also rediscover a sense of closeness expressed by gentle teasing and repartee. (For example, when Zita reminds her brother that he played priest as a child, László recalls that Zita would play Päpstin, because "you had to be above me.") The fact that the final interview between the siblings occurs as they both sit on László's bed seems like a deliberate directorial choice weighted with symbolism. Earlier in the film, Zita recalls that, as children sharing the same bedroom, she and László often had whispered conversations after lights out; in the shared, private language of siblings, the two invented a verb to describe these nighttime chats: bliblablublieren. Reunited in László's room in Cheshire, the siblings once again engage in a kind of bliblablublieren, a tangible sign that, despite all that separates them, they have finally rekindled the connection that they seemed to have lost. The film's sensitive portrayal of the relationship between the director and her brother makes The Best Thing You Do with Your Life worth watching, and the same quality makes me hope that we will see more from Zita Erffa.

Friday, July 31, 2020

Zipoli's Ignatius.

For today's Feast of St. Ignatius of Loyola, here are three selections dedicated to the founder of the Society of Jesus by Jesuit composer Domenico Zipoli (1688-1726). Born in Tuscany, Zipoli showed early promise as a composer and studied under Alessandro Scarlatti in Naples and Bernardo Pasquini in Rome before being named organist of the Church of the Gesù at the age of 26. Zipoli subsequently entered the Jesuits with the hope of serving as a missionary in the Paraguayan reductions; sent to Argentina as a novice, Zipoli spent the rest of his life as choirmaster at the Jesuit mission of Santa Catalina near Córdoba. Though Zipoli was only 37 when he died, his liturgical compositions for the use of indigenous choirs circulated widely in the Jesuit reductions in South America. Falling into obscurity after the suppression of the Jesuits, Zipoli's work was rediscovered by musicologists in the twentieth century and later championed by performers like Argentinian conductor Gabriel Garrido and his Ensemble Elyma, to whom we owe this recording of Zipoli's Misa de San Ignacio.

Also performed by Garrido and Ensemble Elyma, this presentation of vespers as they would be sung for the Feast of St. Ignatius makes use of a setting of the common of confessors believed to have been composed by Domenico Zipoli. The participation of the Coro de Niños Cantores de Córdoba helps the modern listener to imagine how Domenico Zipoli's compositions may have sounded when performed by Guaraní choirs in the reductions of Paraguay.

Finally, the opera San Ignacio represents a hybrid work assembled by the Swiss Jesuit Martin Schmid (1694-1772), a missionary in Chiquitos in Bolivia, who wove together a series of shorter pieces by Zipoli and other composers along with material of his own composition to produce a short opera about Ignatius of Loyola destined to be performed in the Jesuit reductions. Once again, this is a performance by Ensemble Elyma under the direction of Gabriel Garrido. These fragments of the music of Domenico Zipoli serve to recall the memory of a composer who remains something of an enigma; on this Feast of St. Ignatius, may they also serve to honor the memory of the founder of the Society of Jesus.

Thursday, July 23, 2020

Belated thoughts on "The New Pope."

For a while, I have been meaning to write something about The New Pope, a nine-episode series created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino that aired earlier this year on Sky Atlantic, Canal+, and HBO. The New Pope is a sequel to Sorrentino's 2016 series The Young Pope, which I wrote about here. The story of brash, conservative American cardinal Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), elected to the papacy as Pius XIII, The Young Pope was interpreted by reviewers of various stripes as a commentary on contemporary ecclesial politics. This interpretation has its limits; as I argued in my essay on the series, The Young Pope is best read not through political or theological lenses but instead as an extended rumination on the same themes of loneliness, solitude, and human connection that recur throughout Sorrentino's oeuvre. The New Pope proposes further variations on those themes while also offering answers to viewers of the first series who wondered 'what happens next' after the open-ended final episode of The Young Pope.

In linear terms, The New Pope picks up where The Young Pope left off. In the final scene of the earlier series, Pope Pius XIII had dramatically collapsed and lost consciousness while giving a stirring public address in Venice. The new series begins nine months later, with the pope still comatose and his secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) pondering the way forward. Since all efforts to revive Pius XIII have failed, the cardinals declare the papacy vacant and elect the apparently meek and malleable Cardinal Tommaso Viglietti (Marcello Romolo) as pope. Taking the name of Pope Francis II, Viglietti proves to be anything but meek: as iron-willed as he is committed to evangelical poverty, Viglietti takes personal control of all of the Vatican's bank accounts, threatens to defrock Voiello and other curial cardinals, and invites hordes of refugees to take up residence in the Vatican. Then, both unexpectedly and suddenly, Pope Francis II dies of an apparent heart attack, creating yet another papal vacancy as Pius XIII continues to sleep in a hospital bed under the watchful eye of a nursing sister and an attending physician.

Faced with the continued incapacity of Pius XIII and the sudden death of Francis II, Cardinal Voiello seeks a new pope who can restore a sense of stability and help the Church to regain its bearings. His choice falls upon an unusual candidate, Cardinal John Brannox (John Malkovich), a British aristocrat who gained widespread notoriety as the author of a popular spiritual treatise (The Middle Way) and reached high office in the Church before retiring, while still relatively young, to live in seclusion on his family's rural estate. With the help of a key aide, Vatican press secretary Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France), Voiello convinces a reluctant Brannox to come to Rome for the next conclave and to accept election as Pope John Paul III.

Far from providing a return to stability, the pontificate of Pope John Paul III is rocked by unforeseen turmoil. Wounded by a lack of parental love and paralyzed by what he describes as the "unbearable grief" of the loss of his twin brother Adam, who died forty years earlier, the new pope is indecisive and easily manipulated by Voiello's archenemy Cardinal Spalletta (Massimo Ghini). Spalletta persuades Brannox to force Voiello's resignation as secretary of state and to place control of the Vatican's finances in the hands of banker Tomas Altbruck (Tomas Arana), Sofia Dubois's husband and member of a corrupt circle that includes Spalletta as well as the sinister Italian finance minister Guicciardini (Claudio Bigagli). Following a series of threatening broadcasts by 'the Caliph,' the leader of what appears to be Daesh, the Church is shaken by terrorist attacks at Lourdes and within St. Peter's Basilica itself. Finally, in the midst of chaos, Pius XIII awakens from his coma...

I won't recount the rest of the plot, in part because it becomes increasingly convoluted. Some elements, including much-hyped cameos by Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone, add nothing to the narrative. There are subplots of various degrees of importance, including a protracted 'strike' by cloistered nuns in the Vatican, the rise of a fanatical sect devoted to Pius XIII led by the scowling Woman in Red (Kika Georgiou), and the degrading downward spiral of Esther Aubry (Ludivine Sagnier), a young mother whose friendship with Pius XIII played an important role in The Young Pope and who is reduced in the new series to near-homelessness and sexual exploitation. Sorrentino naturally indulges his penchant for arresting visuals and impressive set-pieces, offering (for example) ravishing scenes of Pope Pius XIII making his return to the Sistine Chapel mounted on the sedia gestatoria before an audience of astonished cardinals and later crowd-surfing on the outstretched hands of the adoring faithful in St. Peter's Square. Scenes in which several masked terrorists take a group of schoolchildren and a young priest hostage on the Tyrrhenian island of Ventotene are impressive as much for their gritty realism (unexpected from Sorrentino) as for the beauty of the unique setting. John Brannox's devotion to the memory of his deceased brother Adam is vividly conveyed by a series of poignant and understated flashbacks that show the twins as young adults – together on horseback, skiing down a snow-covered mountain, and racing to button their cassocks as seminarians (Adam teases John for going too slow, leading the resentful John to slap his too-perfect brother across the jaw).

What, if anything, does The New Pope add to the story recounted in The Young Pope? Some characters reprised from the first series gain greater depth and humanity as, in different ways, their old certainties are taken from them and they must struggle to find a new place in the world (a dynamic that represents an important theme for Paolo Sorrentino, who once told an interviewer that "my protagonists tend to be people who need to learn how to be in the world"). Silvio Orlando’s Cardinal Voiello is a perfect example: the ruthless, calculating Vatican secretary of state already showed surprising reserves of empathy and tenderness in the first series through his friendship with Girolamo, a handicapped boy he babysat each evening. In the second series, Voiello's world is shaken by his forced resignation as secretary of state ("I love giving orders," he rues, "it's my whole life"). Afterward, Voiello finds a new sense of purpose and deeper happiness as he moves (with Girolamo) to a rustic villa inhabited by a now-elderly priest mentor and there devotes himself to gardening and nurturing his relationships with friends like Sofia who come to visit him.

Papal press secretary Sofia Dubois was already present in the first series but remained on the periphery, overshadowed as a strong female character by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the steely nun who raised Lenny Belardo and follows him to the Vatican. Sister Mary is absent from The New Pope, but Sofia comes into her own as a more complex, fully-realized character. She is instantly charmed by the sensitive, dandyish John Brannox – after their first meeting, she comments, "the man seems to be made of velvet" – and becomes a close confidante of the new Pope John Paul III. Though she initially turns a blind eye to the manipulation of Brannox, Sofia ultimately finds the courage to team up with Voiello to bring down the members of Spalletta's cabal, including her own husband. Ultimately, it is Lenny Belardo, more than anyone else, who must find a new place in the world: awakening from a coma, he must grapple with his apparent position as pope emeritus (which he initially likens to the role of "an honorary president" who "[doesn't] count") as others demand that he continue to provide spiritual leadership.

Among the 'new' characters, a few stand out. John Malkovich's John Brannox is nothing if not original, a mascara-wearing aesthete and former punk who hates making decisions. As John Paul III, Brannox transcends his reclusive nature with a number of dramatic gestures and a concern for the visibility of the papal office ("every Marilyn should know who the pope is," Brannox declares, in sharp contrast with Lenny Belardo's insistence that "I have no image" and steadfast refusal to be photographed or seen in public). In broad outline if not in detail, the figure of Brannox recalls a certain popular image of Pope Paul VI as an erudite and cultivated man who could also be painfully indecisive. (At the same time, and perhaps more provocatively, one could ask whether the charismatic Lenny Belardo has a bit of Pope John Paul II about him.)

Turning to other new faces of the second series, Cardinal Voiello's priest secretary Don Cavallo (Antonio Petrocelli) is at once suave and devious, a perfect complement to his Machiavellian boss. The unlikely duo of Bauer (Mark Ivanir) and Leopold Essence (J. David Hinze) are, it seems, American intelligence operatives, though (to echo an observation made by my friend Rick Yoder in his writeup on The New Pope) it might be better to think of them as avenging angels who occasionally sweep in to reestablish the status quo ante and to correct particularly egregious wrongs. The eyepatch-wearing Essence (clearly inspired by The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) delivers one of the most important lines in the series, appearing in the Vatican canteen to urge Sofia to "follow the love" because "that's where you will find failure."

If The New Pope has a particular place in Sorrentino's oeuvre, it may be seen as an extended meditation on 'the failure of love.' John Brannox has never felt the love of his parents nor, he believes, the love of God. On becoming pope, Brannox declares, "We only have one problem... the problem is love." All the problems in the world, Brannox thinks, are distortions of love – distortions that cannot necessarily be corrected but can at least be redirected to limit their ill effects. The unfortunate Esther Aubry, former confidante of Pope Pius XIII, suffers throughout the series on account of 'failures of love': abandoned by her husband, she starts a new relationship with a man who introduces her to a life of prostitution, where she later draws scorn and rejection after falling in love with a client. If anyone in the series is exempt from the failures of love, it is Girolamo, the handicapped young man whom Cardinal Voiello describes as his best friend; when Girolamo dies, Voiello eulogizes his friend by describing him as a saint, a representative of "the world who suffers, the world who loves."

I'm tempted to say that The New Pope itself represents the failure of love, lacking the spark of The Young Pope despite some good moments. The sentiment that the new series is inferior to its predecessor is one of the reasons that it has taken me so long to write about The New Pope, as I was not completely convinced that it was worth writing about. On the other hand, the series is worthwhile for Sorrentino completists (like me) who want to understand how all of the director's films and series fit together as a coherent whole. If The New Pope inspires some to (re-)watch The Young Pope or to dive into Sorrentino's other work, I suppose that it will have done some good.

Tuesday, May 19, 2020

Ode for John Paul II.

Yesterday was the centenary of the birth of St. John Paul II, a milestone that marks the putative 'relaunch' of this blog after several months of inactivity. For many people, the Covid-19 pandemic and the experience of more-or-less strict confinement have privileged new and perhaps unaccustomed forms of reflection; the novel situation in which many of us find ourselves has inspired me to start writing here a little more regularly (or at least to attempt to do so).

The last couple of months have seen both the fifteenth anniversary of the death of Pope John Paul II and the one-hundredth anniversary of his birth. These two anniversaries invite reflection on the legacy of John Paul II and his gifts to the Church: a recent letter by his successor Benedict XVI offers a contribution to that important project. For my part, as I approach middle age I become ever more conscious of my Polishness and, in consequence, more sentimentally attached to the saint who was pope for the first quarter-century of my life. As I contemplate the centenary of the birth of Karol Wojtyła, I think of an excellent lecture by the late Father Raymond Gawronski on 'Pope John Paul II and the Polish Hermeneutic,' a lecture that I have shared here before. At the end of that lecture, Father Gawronski cites a poem that Czesław Miłosz wrote in 2000 for the eightieth birthday of Pope John Paul II. The Polish text of the poem, published in the Gazeta Wyborcza, may be found here. The English translation is reproduced below:
We come to you, men of weak faith,
So that you might fortify us with the example of your life
And liberate us from anxiety
About tomorrow and next year. Your twentieth century
Was made famous by the names of powerful tyrants
And by the annihilation of their rapacious states.
You knew it must happen. You taught hope:
For only Christ is the lord and master of history.

Foreigners could not guess from whence came the hidden strength
Of a cleric from Wadowice. The prayers and prophecies
Of poets, whom money and progress scorned,
Even though they were the equals of kings, waited for you
So that you, not they, could announce, urbi et orbi,
That the centuries are not absurd but a vast order.

Shepherd given us when the gods depart!
In the fog above the cities the Golden Calf shines,
The defenseless crowds race to offer the sacrifice
Of their own children to the bloody screens of Moloch.
In the air, fear, a lament without words:
Since a desire for faith is not the same as faith.

Then, suddenly, like the clear sound of the bell for matins,
Your sign of dissent, which is like a miracle.
People ask, not comprehending, how it’s possible
That the young of the unbelieving countries
Gather in public squares, shoulder to shoulder,
Waiting for news from two thousand years ago
And throw themselves at the feet of the Vicar
Who embraced with his love the whole human tribe.

You are with us and will be with us henceforth.
When the forces of chaos raise their voice
And the owners of truth lock themselves in churches
And only the doubters remain faithful,
Your portrait in our homes every day reminds us
How much one man can accomplish and how sainthood works.
St. John Paul II, pray to God for us!