The Beautiful, Baffling Mysteries of Paolo Sorrentino’s Vatican

The Beautiful, Baffling Mysteries of Paolo Sorrentino’s Vatican

Unholy Ghosts

Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and The New Pope.


The Young Pope, the first part of an HBO trilogy about the contemporary papacy by director Paolo Sorrentino, begins with a fake-out. Suntanned 47-year-old Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) wakes to the round marimba tones of an iPhone alarm. This is the first day of his papacy as Pius XIII. He showers, dresses, and passes through an antechamber full of cardinals and greets a roaring crowd from the balcony of the Apostolic Palace, above the Piazza San Pietro. “We have forgotten you,” he shouts to the masses. Then he goes off script. “We have forgotten to masturbate, to use contraceptives, to get abortions, to celebrate gay marriages. We have forgotten that you can decide to die if you detest living.” The crowd falls silent, three cardinals faint, and a swarm of black-frocked priests rushes through the antechamber like a SWAT team. “In short, my dear, dear children, not only have we forgotten to play. We have forgotten to be happy,” Pius continues. “There is only one road that leads to happiness. And that road is called freedom.”

With that, he wakes up—for real this time. The first day of his papacy is beginning, but Lenny is not the grinning liberal rhetorician of his dream. The former archbishop of New York and first American to become pope is stern and haughty; in fact, he doesn’t sleep next to an iPhone. And when he delivers his first homily as Pius, he reprimands the crowd, “You have forgotten God!… You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God.” He abruptly ends after someone in the audience trains a green laser pointer on his body. We hear claps of thunder, rain begins to pour down, and the unhappy throng disperses.

The conceit we are encouraged to take from Pius’s dream—that a free-thinking, iconoclastic pope would endorse many of the same positions as 21st century liberal thinkers—is seductive. It imagines our world as the source of truth and the cloistered Vatican as a backwater of esoteric biases and taboos. But the idea appears and is retracted so early in the series to inoculate the audience against it. It is uninteresting to get the affirmation we most obviously want. The Young Pope and its recently released sequel, The New Pope, do not document an ancient institution struggling to retain relevance in the modern world. Instead they study more enigmatic phenomena, using a story about the workings of power in the Vatican to tell us something bigger about ourselves than just the inner workings of church or state: Sorrentino’s shows are about the limits to our perceived freedoms and the hindrances to understanding life’s baffling mysteries.

The New Pope begins with Pius having collapsed after addressing a crowd in Venice and now in a coma, his chiseled abs sponge-bathed by a young nun who promptly lies down and masturbates next to him. After a failed heart transplant, the young pope is deemed incurably ill, so the Vatican’s power players—led by stout, ruthless Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando)—set out to anoint a new one. But strange things are happening behind the scenes. The sisters of the Convent of St. Thérèse, a monastery within Vatican City, are rising after bedtime, putting on lipstick, throwing off their coifs, and dancing to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl.” Millipedes crawl into ears; a cockroach scurries up the sleeve of a saturnine priest named Leopold Essence. A new pope is chosen, then dies of a “sudden illness” and is replaced at the last minute by an eyeliner-wearing British cardinal named Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), who reluctantly emerges from seclusion on his ancestral estate to become Pope John Paul III.

The first series in Sorrentino’s trilogy is defined by Pius’s hard-line refusals. He refuses to be seen in public, to explain his theology, or to compromise his conservative stances. John Paul III, a former punk rocker, is more of a reformed libertine than an authoritarian figure. Perhaps as a symbol of his laxity, the world of The New Pope becomes an orgy of nonprocreative sex, including fellatio performed through a hole in a wall, a tryst between Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) and a younger man, and a striptease performed for the disabled sons of wealthy Italian families. Whether these constitute sins or acts of generosity is ambiguous. “Do you know what the difference is between a whore and a saint? None,” a client tells Ester (Ludivine Sagnier), a woman whose infertility was seemingly cured by a miracle performed by Pius in the earlier series. In The New Pope, sin is seldom without virtue or the capacity to do some good. The sexual liberation of the nuns of St. Thérèse empowers them to strike during the day for equal rights and an even division of labor with the Vatican’s clergy.

All of this orgiastic excess is punctuated by a terrorist attack on St. Peter’s Basilica, which forces John Paul to flee Rome for an alpine villa, where he struggles to decide whether to return. “It is burdensome to feel profoundly alone for a lifetime,” John Paul tells the Vatican’s press secretary, Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France). “It has been, in fact, a dead life. And God was not enough. Nor was God’s wisdom nor God’s grace nor God’s presence.”

But John Paul is soon visited by a surprising guest: Pius, who has awoken from his coma. Pius conspicuously declines to kiss John Paul’s ring, and soon a series focused on one pope becomes focused on two. Will Pius yield power to John Paul? We learn the answer very quickly. “John, you’re gonna have to resign yourself to believing in me,” Pius tells him. “Now that you’ve realized what I am.”

Hypocrisy is a charge often leveled against the Catholic Church. But The New Pope also posits a different reading of the contradictory and morally complex characters it highlights: that judging oneself solely against either a religious or a secular worldview not only presumes more insight than we might have but destroys life’s mysticism and inevitable tensions as well. John Paul advocates for the “poetry” of Christian values, as opposed to the more direct “rhetorical tools” born of independent-mindedness. His predecessor, too, emphasizes the powerful nature of mystery. It is a way to bring believers into the church. “It’s too easy to come to terms with God as the sun is setting. They have to find him in the cold and the dark of night,” Pius says in the first series.

Amid The New Pope’s and The Young Pope’s enigmas, Sorrentino has developed a second theme that is far less opaque: a defense of inexplicable, unfashionable moral choices, ones that defy both common sense and church doctrine. The most beautiful scene so far comes near the end of the first series, when kind, fragile Cardinal Gutierrez is preparing to leave New York after a breakthrough in his investigation of a powerful Queens archbishop accused of child abuse. He has become close with Rose (Jan Hoag), the owner of the gloomy hotel where he is staying. She is confined to her bed and spends her days watching the building’s security cameras and cooling herself with a small electric fan.

Rose is scheduled to undergo a surgery that she has a 40 percent chance of surviving. “They’re going to empty me out,” she tells Gutierrez. “And if I refuse, they can’t even begin to guess at my life expectancy.” To get her outside, workers will open a giant hole in the outer wall of her sixth-story room, and her bed will be lowered to the street by crane. “I’m not afraid of dying,” she says. “But because I suffer from vertigo, I am afraid of being swung out of this place through that hole in the wall and being dangled in midair.” When the day for the surgery comes, her bed is secured to the crane with nylon slings, and she is lifted out of the building, the whole operation guided by two men inside her room wearing hard hats. A sparse crowd with Gutierrez among them watches the floating bed from the street. Rose squints as the bright sunlight hits her face. She spots the cardinal and waves; he waves back.

Suddenly she shouts, “Bring me back!” The two men nod to each other and guide the bed back into the room. The shadow of the window frame passes over her face, and Rose disappears from view. It is one of many decisions made in the show that seem absurd and—by the Catholic and secular moral rubrics The New Pope cites—are difficult to defend. Rose’s choosing comfort over life and forgoing a possibly lifesaving surgery to avoid the unpleasantness of vertigo and the spectacle of being watched by a crowd is a difficult choice for us to understand, and yet Sorrentino finds beauty and power in it. For him, Rose is both free and not free. She has made a decision between options that are horrifically limited in a situation that is impossibly complicated. She did not allow herself to be emptied out or perish in an operating room, even if the alternative is knowing nothing about when she will die. Rose chooses not to know but to fly above the street in her bed and feel the sunlight on her face, anticipating what lies beyond.

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Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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