Paolo Sorrentino creates films that are great visual feasts, featuring lonely men wandering through a desolate landscape of existential crises. Sorrentino’s This Must Be the Place features Sean Penn as Cheyenne, a retired rockstar in full on goth makeup, seeking out the man who was humiliated by his Nazi father during WWII. Youth stars Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel as Fred and Mick, two aging artists and best friends thinking about creativity and mortality in the Alps. The very spiritual film The Great Beauty (one of my personal favorites) features Toni Servillo as aging writer Jep Gambardello, wrestling with questions of popularity versus substance against the most gorgeous of cinematography.
Now Sorrentino has moved to television, with the HBO limited series titled The Young Pope, featuring Jude Law as Lenny Belardo, the first (and fictional) American Pope, Pius XIII. Lenny is the youngest male character Sorrentino has written in recent memory. The themes are strong and very Sorrentinian. Lenny is wrestling with the very same popularity versus substance questions that Jep Gambardello wrestles with. He is the most popular human being in the world. The office of the Pope is not just a big deal to the worldwide Roman Catholic Church. He is a rockstar, in as much as a clergyman can be, regardless of whether or not you appreciate the “music” he makes. Not only is the Pope a popular guy, he is also one of the most powerful men on the planet.
The show also stars Diane Keaton, as Sister Mary, a caretaker to the young Lenny when he was an orphan. Now, she has moved to the Vatican to keep Lenny company during his pontifical reign and serve as Special Assistant to the Pope. In the first episode, Sister Mary reminds Lenny that he is about to become the leader of one fifth of the world’s population. One billion people. The entire Catholic Church. “You are no longer Lenny Belardo the fatherless and motherless. You are Pope Pius XIII, the father and mother of the Catholic Church.”
While it is a fascinating portrait of a Pope who is more of a fraud than anything else, The Young Pope is clunky in its approach and, ultimately, rather disappointing. When I heard that this was Sorrentino’s work, I was on board without question, but alas, The Young Pope does cannot hold its head above Rome’s baptismal waters.
The writing is spectacular, but, the delivery is severely lacking. Jude Law has always been a decent actor but he has never been great. His performance as Pope Pius XIII is evidence of his continued flat affect. Diane Keaton is simply an odd choice when it comes to the role of Sister Mary. Woody Allen’s great muse doesn’t fit the part. The series is, unfortunately, miscast. In Sorrentino’s former works, the actors are not expected to deliver much dialogue. They are more physical performers against the backdrop of breath-taking scenery. The Young Pope, however, relies heavily on the delivery of its dialogue. The conversations we witness are boring and empty, as empty as the characters themselves. In this way, while I cared deeply about Cheyenne and Jep Gambardello, I do not care at all about Lenny or his fate. Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII is a lonely man, just like the others, but he is not a lonely man that I care about. There are times, as I sit and watch Sorrentino’s series, that I find myself wanting to say out loud, “Make me care, for fuck’s sake!”
If The Young Pope stands as only a philosophical exercise and a bold social/political commentary, then it remains a worthy piece. If you are able to set aside Jude Law and Diane Keaton and their considerably weak delivery, then you might find yourself pulled in by the things Sorrentino has to say. It turns out, for example, that Lenny Belardo projected himself as such a conservative archbishop in New York that he caught the attention of the Vatican. While serving in the role of Pope, however, Lenny is a fitful and petulant child, insistent on only his way. It turns out, as a former Episcopal priest mentor of mine used to say, “People who are in power in the church are generally people who just like being in power. Most of them are assholes.” Lenny Belardo is an asshole who loves being in power, but, doubts himself and the existence of his God as if doubt itself were a sacred ritual.
One of the more revealing scenes happens when Lenny, who calls himself “the center of the Church,” asks a humble local priest to hear his confession. The priest is confounded, but is welcomed to the Papal Palace and sits on the ornate balcony one night with his Pope and listens to his confession. Pope Pius XIII, the Vicar of Christ and the very voice of God for the Catholic church, confesses that he does not believe in God. The priest cannot believe his ears and is immediately cut to the heart. Lenny, the cruel bastard, holds out his hand as if to calm the priest and says, “Father, I’m joking.” Prior to this scene, the young Pope Pius has been barking orders at his papal staff and reminding them that he is “the Pope of Rome” and he can always change the ponitifical game if he sees fit. It becomes clear that Lenny is indeed, the papal reflection of the qualities inherent in our president, Donald Trump. Our president, the great bully of the nation, convinced Evangelical Christian Republicans that he was a true conservative and the working class folks of rural America that he would truly champion their cause, only to end up elected and changing his mind, frequently. It’s as if we are hearing Trump’s confession on the balcony and he holds his hand up as if to say, “Hey, I was joking.”
Lenny Belardo is not fit to be Pope just as Donald Trump is not fit to be our nation’s president. Italian actor Silvio Orlando plays Cardinal Voiello who once pushed hard to bring Lenny to the Vatican, thinking that a conservative American pope would bring a fresh, much-needed approach to the papacy. After Lenny begins his pontifical reign, Dom Voiello begins to regret his decision. After the inauguration, I have spoken to multiple Americans who have had a similar reaction to the election of Trump. Voiello meets with the other cardinals in the Vatican and the conversation is always the same, “What have we done and can we make it go away?”
The primary point that Sorrentino invites us to wrestle with is the question of triumphalism. Political triumphalism is at the core of President Trump’s message to the American people. “Make America Great Again!” The aim is greatness. Keep in mind that this is greatness defined by one of the wealthiest businessmen in the world. The great scholar of Hebrew Scripture, pastor, theologian, and Catholic dissident Martin Luther once wrote a document called the Heidelberg Disputation of 1518. He is well known, of course, for his Ninety-Five Theses, but there is much more to Luther’s message than this piece. The Disputation divides Christian people (namely Catholics) into theologians of the cross and theologians of glory. Theologians of the cross see God as Jesus Christ which means they only see God as revealed in places of suffering, vulnerability, and weakness. The theologian of the cross worships a God of compassion. Compassion comes from the Latin com passio which means “with suffering” or “suffering together.” As a hospice chaplain, I can tell you that people suffer greatly every damn day and make no mistake, if there is a God, this God suffers. If your God does not suffer, then He/She is not worth our time or discussion. The theologian of glory, according to Luther, is one who seeks to find God in places of power, success, and strength. This theist atttempts to build a “ladder” to God’s approval through “works.” When I do something great and my life turns out great because of it, this is God showing me favor. God only shows up when great shit happens in my life! This is triumphalism. This is Lenny Belardo. This is Donald Trump. Lenny and Donald are both “assholes who love being in power.”
Here’s another thing about our president: He is thoroughly uninteresting. He’s a rich guy who hates marginalized people. He’s fucking boring. If I met President Trump in person, aside from wanting to strike him in the face, I might find myself falling asleep because of how boring and empty the conversation is. This is how I feel about The Young Pope. It is a worthwhile, interesting reflection and commentary on politics, power, suffering, and glory, but the performances by Jude Law and Diane Keaton are thoroughly uninteresting.
Joey Armstrong is a hospital chaplain from Western New York. He is also a playwright and amateur cartoonist. Follow him on Twitter @chaplainmystic and Medium, where he writes more reviews for film and television.