In the Vatican of the near-21st century, the election of a young, handsome American as pope brings a terrifying surprise for cardinals. They’d expected an inexperienced, malleable Vicar of Christ. Instead, Lenny Belardo—who takes the name Pius XIII—proves ruthless in removing his enemies, adept at keeping his allies off-balance, and deft in defusing the scandals he creates. In the long course of papal history, this isn’t really new. What’s different is how Lenny discards post-Vatican II traditions of a welcoming and ecumenical papacy. There’s a new pontiff in town, and sometimes he even talks like a sheriff.
By that description, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope (set to air on HBO beginning January 15) may sound like the Vatican version of House of Cards. Some will see in this well-crafted, ten-episode series a caricaturizing of the sins that have given the Vatican the reputation it’s deserved more or less since the papal court was created early in the second millennium. The city of Rome whose decaying majesty we admired in Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty (Academy Award winner for best foreign language film in 2014) is here condensed into the medieval, Renaissance, and baroque Vatican. But it would be a mistake to see The Young Pope as simply a parody.
Pius XIII (played by Jude Law) is a fictional pope who exhibits qualities associated with post-World War II popes, chosen by Sorrentino in order to show the complexities and ambiguities of papal power. In the young Pius XIII there is something of Pius XII, something of Benedict XVI, and something of Francis. There are other references to actual figures from the past sixty years: Lenny’s theatrical gestures recall Pius XII, while the presence of an elderly nun running the Vatican in lieu of the pope (here played by Dianne Keaton) recalls the infamous Mother Pascalina Lehnert. Mentions of a “gay lobby” in the Vatican may bring to mind the papacy of Benedict XVI, as will the use of the term semper puer (eternal child) to describe Lenny—a term Benedict’s opponents also liked to use for effect. There also are parallels between the fictional Cardinal Voiello, Pius XIII’s Secretary of State, and Benedict’s Secretary of State Cardinal Bertone, including a huge luxurious apartment and an intense passion for soccer (Naples for the Neapolitan Voiello, Turin Juventus for the Piedmontese Bertone).
As to parallels to (and criticism of) Pope Francis… In Pius XIII there is a similar determination to address the style and the orientation of the Vatican, something of the same willingness to change how it does its business, including merchandising of the image of the pope. And the anxiety, fear, and puzzlement of the Curia in how to deal with Pius XIII feel awfully familiar too.
So The Young Pope is no parody, but it’s also deeper than anticlerical satire. Especially during the Renaissance and early modern era, the city of Rome was intentionally planned and (re)built as a theatrical stage of the sacred. On this stage, Pius XIII embodies a syndrome typical of the drama of Catholicism: the radical loneliness of the pope, who paradoxically is in charge of keeping the Church in communion. Sorrentino visualizes, in non-theological terms, the papacy as an icon of solitude. In real life, of course, we’re still dealing, visually and theologically, with the fact that there are now two men in white in the Vatican. The Young Pope can help us understand how this image of papal solitude changed when Benedict resigned and chose to reside within the walls of Vatican City at the Monastery of Mater Ecclesiae.
The Young Pope also has something to say about religious authority and the media. Pius XIII is determined to change the relations between the two; he does not want to be popular merely because of the visibility he gains via the media. He also rejects calls to be a visible and accessible model of the faith for men and women of today, which runs counter to actual notions over the past century about this role in a papacy. In addition, the youthful Pius XIII is averse to the contemporary obsession for up-to-dateness; yet his youthfulness and energy also seems to be a mortal threat to the stability of the Church. The story of Lenny’s church can be read as a warning about the sustainability of radical change for our social and political institutions.
The Young Pope received record ratings when it aired in Italy last fall. But it could be more challenging for the American public, both in its awe for the magnificence of the Vatican, and its assumptions about religion in absolute moral terms.
The Young Pope is an allegory that uses the Vatican and the papacy in a very intelligent and provocative way to show something the Catholic Church embodies and represents, consciously or unconsciously, for both Catholics and non-Catholics. And, in portraying that most delicate moment at the Vatican—the transition of papal power to a new pope—Sorrentino invites reflection on every transition of power. Thus some viewers might see in The Young Pope parallels between the election of Lenny Bernardo to the papacy and that of Donald Trump to the presidency. The Young Pope depicts what happens when the newly elected decides to break with traditional modes and etiquette of communication; abandons custom regarding visibility, accessibility, and adherence to previous norms; and wields a power that seems supreme, unique, and terrifying. The fact that the ten episodes will air between the last days of the Obama administration and the first days of the Trump administration is—to use a theological expression—providential.