With the first two episodes down, HBO’s new series The Young Pope has sent a very clear message: the Catholic Church is getting the-Game-of-Thrones-treatment and it is glorious.
It should be noted that The Young Pope is fiction. When I first saw the trailer, like many people I imagine, I searched to see if it was based on an actual events but it isn’t. This simple fact is what lends the series its strength, because without having to adhere to real events The Young Pope can basically do and say whatever it wants. The series is as trashy as it is thoughtful, as compelling as it is heretical and it is all compounded by a direction that is visually stunning.
The series begins with Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) as newly elected pope Pius XIII stirring much concern amongst the Catholic Church. He is a mysterious entity whose rise to power is questioned by most. During the course of the first two episodes, Pius XIII gets acquainted with the various responsibilities of his position. His pretentiousness and tyrant-qualities are immediately apparent, as he progressively humiliates those who see fit to control him, like Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), Sofia (Cecile de France) and even his right-hand woman Sister Marie (Diane Keaton). The first two episodes work hand in hand to not only give us an image of what this new pope is like, but they also lead to Pius XIII’s first address of the masses which serves as the catalyst of what’s to come for the series.
Let me honest with you, I love The Young Pope. For me the show works on so many levels, but I understand why some people may react negatively to it. The Young Pope does not paint the Catholic Church in positive light, instead it aims to reveal the Catholic Church to be nothing but a pit of vipers. It’s all about politics, schemes behind close doors and an active restructuring of the rules, which is just another way to say that laws will be bent in the pursuit of absolute power. This creates a landscape where nobody can be trusted and showcases the inherent greed in human nature.
There is a palpable boldness in The Young Pope and I find it exceedingly refreshing. As hard as it may be to admit, the Catholic Church may represent one of the most influential religions in existence and yet it is nevertheless ran by people. People are not holy entities and they are not perfect. People are flawed and as most of us are aware the Catholic Church is an institution that while preaching goodness and forgiveness, has also faltered throughout the years both in its rejection of modern ideas and its insulting corruption when it comes to hiding sexual abuse. With the new pope things have changed towards the better, but a few good deeds have not been enough to rectify past transgressions. This is all to say that I find it compelling that The Young Pope opts to paint the Catholic Church not as a pristine institution without sin, but as a intrinsically human institution with all the burden that carries.
In light of recent events, The Young Pope does not feel as outrageous as it could’ve been many years ago. The series is very over the top, there is no denying that, but I’ve always been of the opinion that if you’re going big it’ll only be effective when there is thoughtful intent behind it. When I say this I’m referring to the fact that at its core The Young Pope is examining really interesting ideas about human nature, greed and faith. It asks a lot of existential questions, one of them being: what would it be like to have a pope that does not believe in God? It’s a crazy question, but it opens things up for discussion and makes us reconsider established notions. I think it’s ridiculous for us to assume that people in higher positions in the Catholic Church have never struggled with their faith. It’s okay to have doubt, it’s a quality that makes us human. The Young Pope with all its spectacle, backstabbing and hilarious shirts, is nevertheless trying to start a thoughtful conversation about a subject that is rarely ever questioned. I admire that and it doesn’t hurt that the series is also impeccably crafted.
As I said before, the direction in The Young Pope is visually stunning. Created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, the boldness seen in the subject matter is compounded by the visuals themselves. The first episode opens with a baby walking amidst a seabed of baby corpses. It’s striking and when you see Pius XIII emerge out of the corpses, The Young Pope instantly announces that it will relish in going places that’ll make you uncomfortable. Beyond that there is the framing of the scenes themselves, which even the ones depicting utter mundane events, carry a palpable degree of creativity that renders the entire episodes into classical paintings. It’s symmetrical but at same time a bit askew, visually conveying the degradation in the house of God. There’s a beautiful contrast of shadow and light, and having most of the scenes take place in museums or architectural marvels lends the series a dream-like quality that feels touchable, grounded in a not-so foreign reality.
I think it speaks a lot about the faith HBO has on this show that even before the first two episodes premiered, The Young Pope was renewed for a second season. It’s wonderful and if the first two episodes are any indication, things can only go up from here. The Young Pope has built great momentum and with Pius XIII finally addressing the masses in the second episode, things will get more complicated and over the top. In the second episode, in particular, it dawn on me that this pope is aiming towards embodying the God of the old testament. An entity that is vindictive and prone to testing the faith of its subjects with unrelenting hardships. I think it’s awesome and I highly recommend watching The Young Pope. Just be aware that it is fiction, it’s trying to make you uncomfortable but if you get pass the spectacle of it, you’ll discover not only an interesting but also human examination of the Catholic Church.