The Young Pope and the New Iconoclasm

“The young are always more extreme than the old.”
By  · Published on December 29th, 2016

“The young are always more extreme than the old.”

Gaudy (and stunning) hat aesthetics withstanding, Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope looks phenomenal. From Sorrentino’s crisp, irreverent script, to DP Luca Bigazzi’s sumptuous, arresting visuals, it’s overwhelming in the best way. The HBO limited series stars Jude Law as the titular Young Pope, and a habited Diane Keaton as his personal secretary, with the main cast rounded out by James Cromwell, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Scott Shepherd, and Cécile de France.

The Guardian’s Peter Bradshaw described The Young Pope as Sorrentino’s Twin Peaks, which is to say, the auteur’s smooth (if idiosyncratic) transition to the small screen. Sorrentino seems to be returning to the sardonic territory of Il Divo, a far cry from the “emotions-are-all-we’ve-got” attitude of Youth and the meditative tenderness of his Oscar-winning The Great Beauty. With Sorrentino writing/directing all ten episodes, there’ll be plenty of power-plays, panache, and intrigue (all welcome bedfellows as far as the Vatican is concerned) awaiting North American viewers this January.

Developed by Sky Atlantic and Canal+, the series premiered internationally this October to critical acclaim. The miniseries is Italy’s most expensive TV production – a $45 million price tag that has paid off in record national ratings and, praise be, a second season.

The Young Pope unravels the fictional pontificate of Lenny Belardo, the first-ever American Holy Father and the youngest pope elected by the College of Cardinals. Ordained on the misguided premise that his inexperience and good looks would make him pliable and profitable, Lenny is revealed to be more than the Vatican bargained for.

A+ sacrilege
Yankee Pope nonchalantly reverses the Vatican smoking ban, swigs cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, and is “meh” on the whole believing in God thing. He is also frustratingly good looking and I am very uncomfy with the level of sin HBO has achieved.

Tempt me not, Home Box Entertainment
But don’t let the flip-flops fool you: Renegade Pope is radical in dastardly less sexy ways. After his hippy parents abandoned him, Lenny was raised in an orphanage by nuns – specifically, Keaton’s Sister Mary. This is not a background liable to breed political puppets or, for that matter, progressives. Being discarded by liberal-minded, hedonism-seeking parents might leave a sour taste in your mouth. And here’s where the other shoe drops: Lenny may be a modern pope, but he’s no modernizer.

A big, flaming red flag is the papal alias Lenny adopts, Pius XIII, which aligns him with the Mussolini-accommodating Pius XI, and Pius XII, sometimes known as “Hitler’s pope.” Hell-bent on restoring the Catholic Church to its former glory, it would seem the authoritarian apple doesn’t fall far. Lenny forbids the dissemination and commodification of his image, shrouding his appearance in secrecy to the shock and disdain of Vatican PR. Rather than revitalize and yank the Church into the twenty first century, Rogue Pope suffocates it and cloaks it in esotericism: “We need to go back to being prohibited, inaccessible, and mysterious…I don’t want anymore part-time believers,” proclaims Lenny.

It’s a righteousness that borders on malice; a laceration of complacency and corruption. “What truly made our church great,” asks Lenny, “fear, or tolerance?” Well, with Lenny running the show, “tolerance doesn’t live here anymore.”

This is the new iconoclasm: a return to the murky glory of doctrinal purity. In The Young Pope, tearing down the establishment is an inside job, a rejection of the values that undermine the flexing of institutional power. And for better or for worse, it succeeds by virtue of a well-entrenched system’s inability to deal with an individual who refuses to play by the rules. It’s a potent post-2016 allegory: an old cause with a new face.

From Sorrentino, at the Venice International Film Festival: “It’s possible that after a very liberal pope, there is someone that might have very different ideas. I think it’s an illusion that the church has a long-term idea towards modernity.” That’s a troubling thought, for any institution or community, but evidently one that has become all too pressing, and worth visiting in the new year.

The Young Pope airs in America, via HBO, January 15th 2017.

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Based in the Pacific North West, Meg enjoys long scrambles on cliff faces and cozying up with a good piece of 1960s eurotrash. As a senior contributor at FSR, Meg's objective is to spread the good word about the best of sleaze, genre, and practical effects.