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Conscience Magazine

Habemus Papem

By Ruth Riddick August 13, 2017

young popeTime for a pop quiz. What do the following alpha actors have in common: Rex “Talk to the Animals” Harrison, Anthony “Hollywood’s All-Purpose Ethnic” Quinn, and Jude “You Do Know I’m Beautiful” Law? Yes! They have all played the pope in glorious color. But only one of them has given us Pontifex Maximus as Disrupter.Somewhere in the early 21st century, around the time that US presidential aides started disparaging commentators for living in “fact-based reality,” Western culture pivoted back from the written to the visual. The glory that is Rome is, in HBO’s The Young Pope (2017), gorgeously visual.

This pivot was hardly—dare I say?—unforeseen:

  • In 1992, Gore Vidal published a collection of biographical pensées, Screening History, in which he both anticipated contemporary “alternative facts” and introduced the idea that moving pictures tell a more captivating story than the written word. “Our genius for the metamorphosis of mere fact has achieved perfection,” he wrote. This useful perversion was not a new idea even then. Two John Ford westerns memorably illustrate the process: “Print the legend” from The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962) is popular, but I prefer John Wayne’s reply to the wildly inaccurate hagiography proposed by a hapless journalist towards the end of Fort Apache (1948): “Correct in every detail.”
  • Veteran journalist Pete Hamill, pre-Twitter, urged his readers to urgently consider that News Is a Verb (1998). Journalism was far advanced, he warned, in embracing the (visual) phenomenon of a celebrity, detatched from actions that might be written up as news. The Young Pope speaks convincingly to the optics of celebrity.
  • Pre-Facebook visitors to Annette Polan’s less-remembered 2005 visual art exhibition Faces of the Fallen at Arlington Cemetery reported that looking at portraits from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars was more moving even than reading the written names on Maya Lin’s very famous Vietnam Veterans Memorial.
  • Recently, curtor Eleri Lynn has spoken of how Diana Spencer, one of our culture’s most visually rendered subjects, communicated through clothing choices rather than word choices. “It is very surprising how little footage there exists of the Princess actually speaking,” Berry told Vanity Fair in May 2017. “We all have a sense of what we think she was like, and yet so much of it comes from still photographs, and a large part of that is communicated through the different clothes that she wore.” Clothing plays such a prominent role in The Young Pope that auteur Paolo Sorrentino, invariably described as the “Italian abstract maximalist,” must surely have been channeling “Shy Di.”


Sorrentino, born into the era of Vat­ican II, readily acknowledges that his Lenny (Law) could have gone either way ideologically. The series was first conceived during the papacy of Benedict XVI, with Sorrentino’s character adopting a contrarian liberal policy; following the unexpected elevation of Francis, he went instead with an extremely right-wing characterization. As noted in The Guardian, Sorrentino has confirmed it’s no coincidence that the fictional Pius XIII begins as an ultrahardline pope at a time when the real pontiff is pursuing a papacy progressive-seeming enough to confound his immediate predecessors and their partisans. (And Law is truly scary in the early chapters, in which his portrayal would fit right into the murky gangster movie Road to Perdition (2002). Oh, wait, he was a mob assassin in that!) Thus, Ita­ly’s most expensive television production emerged as a sort of accident of history.

And how serendipitous. The Young Pope is perfectly attuned to the global political moment. “Etiquette and precedent have lost much of their currency in the Age of Trump,” opined Frank Bruni in the New York Times. He might have been reporting from inside Lenny’s Vatican, embedded with us for the duration.

Similarly, critic Richard Lawson writes in Vanity Fair, “[The Young Pope is] less a clash between opposing forces than it is a steady, darkening, unchallenged march toward total upheaval—which might sound a little familiar these days.”

Television for the Age of Trump, then—high-gloss visuals; meandering yet linear narrative disguised here as edgy storytelling; tonal shifts in the obligatory proto-Randian (anti-) hero; an audience as unhinged as today’s head­lines. For the cineaste viewer, there is the pleasure of implicit homage to atheist Luis Bunuel, and explicit reference to Francis Ford Coppola’s Godfather movies, including use of Diane Keaton in an ambiguous role. (Remember Kea­ton’s Kay had an abortion in The Godfa­ther—“An abortion, Michael!” Now, her Sister Mary has got pride and ambition and poor scripting, only two of which are actual sins.)

Lawson continues, “The show’s acci­dental similarities to real-life events—Lenny was elected Pope in a stunning upset that confounded the Vatican estab­lishment’s assumption that a more familiar veteran would win—are so keenly felt in the first half of the season that it makes for difficult viewing.” This viewer concurs. “ I don’t really want to watch this amoral, perhaps insane autocrat exert his ordained might, upending an age-old institution while others fearfully scramble—disbe­lieving and caught entirely off guard—to save what they can.”

Not that The Young Pope avoids big themes amid this helter-skelter: power (lots), gender (sorta), faith (little). There is a self-aggrandizing nun behaving badly in her latter-day African colony, what we used to call “on the Missions.” Could she be Saint Teresa of Calcutta deconstructed? At the opening of epi­sode eight, we find a conversation dis­tilling two millenia of changing church teaching on abortion. This is smartly written and would be fascinating if true. In the Age of Trump, no rhetoric is trustworthy.

But, really, how seriously are we to take The Young Pope? There is the lovely Jude Law, who first came to prominence playing Oscar Wilde’s nemesis, and he winks at us through the fourth wall even as a holy meteor rearranges the Vatican artwork behind him, toppling a statue of the recently canonized John Paul II. Postmodernism visually at play. Can it signify anything for the church, for the faithful in the 21st century?

Predictably, the usual dinosaur came out to complain. Striving for a zeit­geist-friendly populist voice, Catholic League veteran Bill Donohue engages with The Young Pope by gratuitously impugning HBO’s putative audience as “the Meryl Streep gang,” who “never threw a football, much less [watched] a game on TV [while drinking beer].” Say what? Sounds like the football watchers are the ones being patronized. But Donohue’s strange response is also symptomatic of our times. We have come a long way from exploring whether Martin Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ (1988) is blasphemous. We are no longer talking about themes and issues and meaning. Today we are just plain hating. Thus, the depopulated public square; the marketplace of ideas is closed for repairs.

And yet … why do we commit to longform television? The Young Pope wants 10 hours of your life to complete its story “arc.” The traditional viewing public was raised to a cinema experience of only two hours per self-contained feature. Self-important epics like The Shoes of the Fisherman (Pope Anthony Quinn) or The Agony and the Ecstasy (Pope Rex Harrison), fairly solemn popes, clocked in closer to three hours. We expect complex stories to be resolved within this circumscribed timeframe.

The Young Pope runs to the equivalent of five feature films. And streaming ser­vices continue to develop ever longer shows: The Sopranos took six years to black out (and not to audience satisfac­tion); Mad Men totals 90 hours; Breaking Bad is just 62; Bosch is on its fourth 10-hour season with no end in sight. So ingrained has this form of entertain­ment become that the descriptor for a new form of viewing behavior—“binge watching”—has entered (what is left of) the language.

What are we looking for in these marathons? Depth of character? Intri­cacy of plot? Moving wallpaper? Nei­ther character development nor plot coherence distinguishes The Young Pope, but we may ask if it will qualify as a bar­gaining chip in purgatory.

Once upon a time in Hollywood, efficiency of storytelling was prized, not simply as a craft category at the Academy Awards, but a skill which defined the art. Canny directors—John Ford is one—speak of editing as they shot; others unabashedly created (today, we would say “crafted”) their films in the editing suite. As Elmore Leonard advised, “Try to leave out all the parts readers skip.”

Undoubtedly, The Young Pope is lov­ingly crafted, and never less than lovely to look at, but where are the pruning shears? With Johannes Gutenberg, MIA in the caves of Lascaux.

Ruth Riddick
Ruth Riddick

led a successful appeal at the European Court of Human Rights against Ireland's restriction on information about extra-territorial legal abortion (Open Door Counselling, 1992), resulting in Irish constitutional and legal reform. Her polemic on "women's right to choose" is featured in the Field Day Anthology of Irish Writing. She is a regular contributor to Conscience, usually writing on film and the arts.