Silly Putty: A Review of “The Young Pope”

The Young Pope, which premiered last week on HBO, is the story of the fictional Pius XIII. This is a review based solely upon Episodes 1 and 2 (of 10) and a bunch of YouTube clips.

The 47-year-old (so. . .only relatively young) Archbishop of New York, Lenny Belardo (played by Jude Law), has been elected pope as a compromise candidate. The cardinal electors (liberals and conservatives alike) believe his youth will make Papa Lenny as manipulable as silly putty. In fact, he turns out to be strong-minded and more “conservative” than any pope since Pius X (under a portrait of whom one early scene is shot). He rides in the sedia gestatoria and wears the papal tiara.

Part of the premise is that he’s an orphan raised by a nun, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), although he behaves as though raised by wolves.

In his first Urbi et Orbi, shot in shadows by creator-writer-director Paolo Sorrentino, Lenny hectors the faithful in St. Peter’s Square like a drunk ranting at patrons in a Brooklyn bar. He’s clearly a whack job, although the cardinals don’t seem to have noticed – or didn’t care.

And the ranting of this hectoring pontiff doesn’t stop there. He hectors the Vatican’s head of PR, ordering an end to papal merchandising – including even photos of his august self. “I do not exist,” he says. But this is a post-modern marketing strategy: he’ll become present to Catholics by being absent.

He hectors the cardinals, telling them he has no interest in collegiality, evangelization, tolerance, or ecumenism (he says: “EK-u-meni-cal-ism”). “We are cement,” he says. He doesn’t want the world’s friendship – apparently his predecessor received praise for his accessibility – because Lenny’s desires are simpler: “total devotion to God” from Catholics and total loyalty to him from the cardinals.

The loafers of the Fisherman

He says he is not afraid to lose the faithful if they’ve been even the least unfaithful. I kept waiting for an inside-cinema quip in which some character, probably Sister Mary, would evoke Jaws: “I think you’re gonna need a smaller Church. . .”

As Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), Lenny’s predecessor in New York, tells the young pope, “Mystery is a serious matter. It’s not some marketing strategy.” Maybe, although it was first suggested by Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger just before the conclave that elected him: “How many winds of doctrine have we known in recent decades, how many ideological currents, how many ways of thinking.” Very apposite rhetorical questions indeed.

Cardinal Ratzinger followed with this: “Today, having a clear faith based on the Creed of the Church is often labeled as fundamentalism.” Papa Lenny is just such a fundamentalist.

Actual Catholic conservatives may be cheered by some of what Papa Lenny says. On abortion, for instance: “it is only modern laxity that wishes to turn sins into rights.”

But, beware! This is presented in the same spirit with which Shakespeare wrote the oration of Polonius to Laertes, with it’s famous “To thine own self be true” platitudes that mock the very positions the old fool mouths. In the scene in which Lenny and the foul-mouthed Cardinal Spencer debate infanticide, it’s Spencer who wins the argument, deploying the ludicrous idea of ensoulment at three months: “tough in principle, soft in practice.”

Lenny claims to want to root out all homosexuals from the Church. It’s as if Sorrentino is saying: Imagine, what would happen if you traditionalists got a pope who actually did what you want a pope to do! Lenny says the sex-abuse crisis has turned the Church into a kind of Third World country, but the Cardinal Secretary of State, Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) worries that the pope’s reactionary purge will make the Vatican resemble North Korea.

Mr. Sorrentino might argue that The Young Pope is a satire in the tradition of Petronius or Boccaccio. In fact, it’s a 10-hour fashion ad: chic and superficial. This pope’s not a model male; he’s a male model. One scene shows Lenny donning the regalia of office. Red Moroccan-leather loafers are back! The sequence is shot to a cloying “electro-hop” song by LMFAO titled “Sexy and I Know It,” which contains the oft-repeated phrase, “Girl, look a’dat body!” It is a deeply offensive scene, its edginess dulled only by its outlandishness – more so even than the one in which a woman, sent by Cardinal Voiello to seduce the young pope, unbuttons her blouse and slides the pope’s hand inside, a scene made watchable only because it isn’t explicit and because Lenny remains impassive. (“We are cement,” remember.)

Other sex scenes (none that I saw involving Lenny, unless you count a quick shot his naked derriere) are quite graphic, and there’s perversity aplenty throughout.

It is asserted of Lenny by his confessor – whom, for political reasons, the pope has suborned into revealing what others in the Vatican have confessed – that the pope doesn’t actually believe in God. Well, this is just one actor speaking to another lines written for them, and whether or not Papa Lenny is really an unbeliever is unclear. The Young Pope isn’t about faith anyway but power and the things that flow from it, such as revenge and wealth and glory, albeit glory of the earthly kind.

HBO’s head of programming has said The Young Pope is “not entirely inaccurate,” which may be true. What’s also true – despite its Borgia-like machinations, ostentatious hipness, and often-gorgeous imagery – is that it’s not entirely entertaining. In fact, it’s unfailingly (if not infallibly) boring.

Brad Miner is the Senior Editor of The Catholic Thing and a Senior Fellow of the Faith & Reason Institute. He is a former Literary Editor of National Review. His most recent book, Sons of St. Patrick, written with George J. Marlin, is now on sale. His The Compleat Gentleman is now available in a third, revised edition from Regnery Gateway and is also available in an Audible audio edition (read by Bob Souer). Mr. Miner has served as a board member of Aid to the Church In Need USA and also on the Selective Service System draft board in Westchester County, NY.