Originally published:

Jude Law as Pius XIII

by Alex Fontana

The new television drama series, The Young Pope, created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, started off strongly.
For the first two or three episodes I felt that Sorrentino was cementing his reputation as one of the greats, but, alas, less than halfway through, the HBO series lapsed into the formulaic bathos of a common melodrama. It slowly revealed itself incapable of being the traditionalist critique that it seemed to promise at first. This was a far worse failure for me than The Great Beauty (La Grade Bellezza).

The story of The Young Pope begins with a renegade ultra-conservative young churchman, Lenny Belardo, who has just become Pope Pius XIII and has the goal of returning the Church to its former glory—basically “Making Catholicism Great Again!” The role is played enigmatically by English actor Jude Law.

The first few episodes were genuinely intriguing and exciting. It seemed as though we were witnessing something truly reactionary, done skillfully, intelligently and beautifully. I was found myself being entertained by The Young Pope, and believing that Sorrentino was not the one-hit-wonder I took him to be.
The script was witty, if a bit overblown, the camera work crisp and thoughtful, the pacing great, and the music was well worked into the scenes—creating an almost numinous atmosphere of mystery and nascent purpose suitable to a great enterprise.
In episode one, Pius is coming to clean house. He will no longer tolerate the soft liberalism that pervades the Faith. He stands for necessary intolerance and severity, and a move back towards Orthodoxy. He refuses to play the media game and eschews public speaking “until God wills it.” This is not some “pop Pope” looking to appear on the cover of Rolling Stone Magazine.
A rolling Pope gathers no mass.

Instead he turns his energies inwards, working within the church to build a fanatical following, disposing of homosexuals, smashing child molesters, and expelling adulterers. What is being rejected here is the submissive relativism of the present Pope, with his aimless credo of “Who am I to judge?”

Sorrentino’s Pius XIII understands that being the Pontifex Maximus, God’s representative on earth, means that you occupy a seat of judgement—divinely inspired judgement—and must cast the first stone in judgement. The act of not judging, in fact, is a judgement in itself—a judgment not to judge. The Young Pope thus presents a fictional reactionary discourse that challenges the actual regime of the “progressive” Pope Francis (and his ‘modernizing’ predecessors, stretching even further back than Vactican II).
Pius XIII communes with God (a kind of cheap, gimmicky plot device, admittedly) and performs miracles. This readiness to move away from conventional narratives raised the possibility of the show breaking new ground or exploring taboo elememts—a crusade against Muslims in the spirit of Deus Vult, perchance, an Inquisition against heretics, a revival of traditional attitudes to Jews, or even a general “revolt against the modern world” through the work of Pius X or Benedict XVI. The Malleus Maleficarum could even have been retooled to strike at the incarnation of the witch in the modern world, namely the ‘Sex in the City’ girl.
Any of these plots would have been true to the promise of this project and helped the series move forward. At least, Sorrentino could have sparked a sentimental religious revival for simpler, more sacred times.

Sadly the show missed these golden opportunities, and, halfway through the season, lapsed instead into melodrama. Soapy endings, topped off with montage sequences set to pop music, pushed the series away from overarching topics towards twee fables and neat endings. Sorrentino essentially went for a kind of “Grey’s Anatomy” formulaic sentimentalism that pervaded the later episodes, a kind of “life is hard, but smile” degeneration of the enterprise.

Instead of the Pope changing the secular world, he was instead changed by it—pushing a message of compromise as a justification for the softening of the Church’s standards.
In place of a conservative critique of the modern Church and the modern secular world—a reversal back from Francis to Benedict and then to Pius—the show instead took its starting point of a conservative Pius and transformed him into Benedict and then the pliant and rubbery Francis, as Jude Law’s character became gradually more “tolerant” and “enlightened” by accommodation with the modern world.
With the seat of St. Pete’s in the hands of a radical progressive, pasquinos have started to appear pointing out his hypocrisy, the first time this has happened in a long time.
Contrast this with what Jeff Israely, a Jewish journalist who used to cover the Rome beat, said about Pope Benedict XVI:

“Benedict’s razor-sharp intellect is the best skill he has to offer for his church—and potentially the world as well. When he turned the brainpower toward the realm of interreligious relations in last week’s speech, Benedict shifted the terms of a debate that has been dominated by either feel-good truisms, victimization complexes, or hateful confrontation. He sought instead to delineate what he sees as a fundamental difference between Christianity’s view that God is intrinsically linked to reason (the Greek concept of Logos) and Islam’s view that “God is absolutely transcendent.”

While The Young Pope turned away from the logos of the faith’s conception of the divine, it fell into the “feel-good truisms” of the age in which it was conceived.

Curiously, ruminations about Christ and even images of Him are nearly absent from the show. It seems to bypass spiritual depth and revelation, instead focusing on a kind of House of Cards politicization of the Faith, which, despite the magical communion that the Pope enjoys with God, leaves one feeling conned with something more banal.


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