Thursday, February 16, 2017

The Young Pope

I have deliberately delayed until now writing anything about HBO's dramatic series The Young Pope, by Paolo Sorrentino and starring Jude Law as a very good-looking (if otherwise personally unattractive), young (40-something), American-born Pope. The premise of a 40-something, American-born Pope is itself so implausible that we are in effect already set up to accept the many other implausibilities of this bizarre fictional papacy.  In addition to being American, Pope Pius XIII is Lenny Belardo, an orphan, abandoned by his "hippie" parents at age 11 to an orphanage run by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) who becomes in effect the closest thing he has to a mother figure in his lonely life. His complicated childhood and his apparently life-long loneliness figure powerfully in his personality and in his strange behavior as pope. 

The series is littered with flashbacks and dream sequences, more than enough to classify it as "arty" and win it the accolades that frequently accompany such artiness. Fair enough. And it is also visually quite beautiful, which (along with its extremely cynical portrayal of the Church) may help explain it apparent popularity in Italy. Jude Law certainly looks like a pope. Indeed, one of the often commented upon features of the series is how he impressively dresses up the way popes used to do. To be honest, it is very refreshing once again to see a pope in tiara and mantum and seated on the sedia gestatoria. The problem, however, is that instead of being presented as him dressing in conformity with the expectations that traditionally accompany his office (which is objectively what he appears to be doing), the way he is actually presented suggests the opposite, that he is simply acting according to his personal whim.

Personal whim, in fact, dominates this fictional pope's behavior throughout. If he does, indeed, objectively speaking, dress the way a pope might be expected to dress, his behavior is anything but what we would expect from any pope in almost any era.  From his refusal to be seen by the public to his manner of interacting with everyone from state visitors to curial colleagues, his behavior is consistently the opposite of what the position of pope requires - regardless of what kind of pope one wants (e.g., "liberal," "conservative," traditional," "spiritual," pastoral," whatever). It is hard to conceive of any religious - let alone political agenda - that would be well served by such a personality in the papal throne. But worst of all, in my opinion, is his generally mean behavior toward those around him and the joy he apparently takes in humiliating people. Have we increasingly accustomed ourselves to the idea of political leaders who behave according to their personal whims and delight in disrupting established norms and in humiliating people? And what does that say about us? 

There is some discernible softening in Pope Belardo's personality and behavior in the final episodes (perhaps setting us up for some personal growth on his part in a second season?). But the overall character of this pope remains an unattractive one, which in turn highlights the program's generally cynical and worldly presentation of the Church (with some significant exceptions, which give the show some welcome complexity).

The repeated emphasis on Belardo's personal history as an abandoned orphan would be tiresome were it not for the fact that it seems to be intended as the primary explanation for his supposed spiritual uniqueness (which at least some see as signs of his sanctity) and his otherwise generally boorish behavior towards most real people.  Perhaps his loneliness and his resultingly damaged personality are meant to identify him with the dilemma of our post-modern world, which is so increasingly cut off from its historical roots and any effective anchors, and so simultaneously seeks spiritual meaning while acting out in damaged and damaging ways.

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