The Royal Painter
by ALEX CARNEVALE
The Young Pope
creator Paolo Sorrentino
We all know someone who believes, with a certainty that never admits doubt, that the world revolves around them. These people float in and out of our lives. It is hard to begrudge them their views, in a way, since their deleterious attitude proves useful as a survival mechanism. They remind us of animals in that way, of beasts who can no more consider others’ plight that they can leave their bodies and travel as spirits. At some point they are rewarded with tragedy caused by the limits of awareness.
There is a character in a Cixin Liu novel I thought of while watching The Young Pope, the new series about a young American pope cross-produced by Sky in the UK and HBO. He is a prince who appears the same size no matter what distance you stand away from him. Viewed from afar, he resembles a giant; up close he is a bit smaller than an ordinary man. At times Paolo Sorrentino’s direction makes his titular character Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), clad in gaudy robes and a tiara, seem to violate the laws of perspective.
Law seems to be having too much enjoyment in this role of an orphaned priest who manipulates his way into the papacy. He does not have to play at being a prick, since being Jude Law is synonymous with the concept. Law uses his lips to sneer in forty different directions, constantly on the verge of devouring his own face. He seems unable to pause or consider – every action and sentence was pre-planned, pre-written a long time ago, before the moment we witness. Scenes with the Italian ensemble that surrounds Law are markedly different when he is not present. His Pope is perenially onstage.
Eventually, Belardo chooses to address his cardinals to give them the blueprint for his reign as Pope Pius XIII. He presents them with a tiny door, explaining how he plans to demand fanaticism from Catholics, and his disgust with a Church which hopes to merely win the esteem of the people. It will be difficult to fit through the small opening, and not everyone will make it.
Belardo, like his alter-ego Dr. Mindy Lahiri, is not entirely unsympathetic. On the night of her ex-boyfriend’s wedding, Dr. Lahiri begins hearing his voice channeled through a photograph on her refrigerator. In a fugue state she drives all the way to Massachusetts. Her boyfriend Ben has chosen not to spend the weekend with her, preferring to chaperone his daughter to a school event. He does call to check in on her. She does not ask him how it is going, or what he is feeling or thinking. He is merely an accessory to her, and when she thinks about Ben, her only thought is whether or not he is benefitting or detracting from the life she wants to live.
The danger for a priest is to become too drawn in to the lives of his adherents. Like Pope Pius XIII, Mindy has several useful followers. There is Jeremy, a man with low self-esteem who directs her gynecological practice. There is Morgan, an indigent nurse who finds the time to care for fifteen to twenty dogs when he is not constantly on call for his boss, and there is Ben, another nurse who cares for Mindy’s son since she barely even holds him. Lahiri has nothing in the way of female friends – in the original incarnation of The Mindy Project she had several, but no one could think of any plotlines for them. They detracted from her odd appeal rather than added to it.
Pope Pius XIII’s main follower is Diane Keaton, a nun who served as his secretary, but he soon bullies most others in the Vatican into his cause. He is fond of saying that when he appears in public he will be taken as a Christ-figure if he wishes it. The irony, of course, is that he is nothing like the son of God, and all the ways that he is different could fill several leatherbound volumes. Flashbacks explain how Lenny Belardo, abandoned by his alt-left parents got to be the way that he is.
Dipping back and forth between eras and locations, Sorrentino seems to have found his most rewarding subject. His recent films in Italian and English have considered, at extreme length, the topic of old age. He had a lot to say about how bracing it is to realize you are not as you were. In The Young Pope, he has engaged with the polar opposite experience. Birth is an ongoing metaphor in The Young Pope; as he cascades through a series of ever more elaborate settings and costumes, Jude Law seems to be constantly reborn. Watching him emerge in and out of his robes is so enervating you almost look away. Even his shoes are indecent.
It is supposed to be a kind of nasty fun, watching Law completely turn the papacy on its head. The Young Pope‘s astonishing title sequence makes the show appear to be a wicked joyride, like sneaking into a movie you were not supposed to get into. But I suspect anyone interested in Catholicism can’t help but see it differently. Some of Law’s over-the-top rhetoric is even inspiring in a certain context. It is rewarding to see a figure who truly believes in something, even if that something is only himself.
Alex Carnevale is the editor of This Recording.