The Young Pope, an Italian show filmed in English and carried in the United States by HBO, is fascinating and confusing. If the first episode is a bait-and-switch, the second (released at the same time) is almost a sermon.
The show tells the story of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), the first American pope. He is also the first pope in recent times to hide his face from the public. In a fascinating exchange with the Vatican’s head of marketing, Sofia (Cécile De France), he explains why.
The exchange happens after Sofia presents a plate, which the Vatican intends to sell for 45 euros once an image of Belardo’s face — as that of Pope Pius XIII — has been added. Belardo scoffs at this idea.
Belardo: “I do not have an image, young lady, because I am no one. Only Christ exists, only Christ, and I am not worth 45 or even 5 euros. I am worth nothing.”
Sofia: “I don’t understand, Holy Father.”
Belardo: “Of course you don’t, because as you said earlier, you studied at Harvard, and Harvard is a place in decline, where you are taught to lower yourselves. Whereas here, in the Vatican, we try to elevate ourselves.”
Make no mistake — though this show may be airing on HBO, Lenny Belardo is a conservative pope, and he may indeed become a hero to many conservative Roman Catholics watching this show. At the first mention of Harvard, he warns Sofia, “Don’t sound so cocky. The word ‘Harvard’ may impress people around here, but to an American it means one thing only, decline.” Cue the applause.
Now, many of Belardo’s decisions are made out of cunning and not just piety. Later in the conversation — after the pope has declared “Only Christ exists” — he explains that his decision to hide his face from the public is also a cunning marketing ploy. He argues that the most important popular figures also hid their faces, and that far from “media suicide,” that decision enhanced their intrigue and appeal to the broader public.
The fascinating thing is, Belardo carries this mix of piety and cunning to his papal address (at the end of the second episode), and it is both shocking and intriguing.
One of the reasons for both the shock and the intrigue is the pope’s hidden visage in this address. As he tells Sofia, “for my first address you will see to it that the lighting is so dim, no photographer, no TV cameraman, and not even the faithful will see anything of me but a dark shadow, my silhouette. They will not see me because I do not exist.”
So, in his address, Belardo delivers a powerful Jeremiad:
We have forgotten God. You [he points to the cardinals in attendance], you have forgotten God. I want to be very clear with you, you have to be closer to God than to each other. I am closer to God than I am to you. You need to know I will never be close to you, because everyone is alone before God. …
Without God, you’re as good as dead. Dead, abandoned strays wandering the streets. You want to look me in the face, go see God first! … When you’ve found God, perhaps you will see me as well.
What a sermon! And what a way to make his very hiddenness a message of the people’s separation from God! As the trailers hinted, Lenny Belardo intends a “revolution” in the papacy, and not the kind one might expect from the likes of Pope Francis (who is not even as liberal as some believe).
Yet Belardo is a mysterious figure. In the first episode (which features the typical HBO nudity — although only in one scene toward the beginning, and for no apparent purpose), he utters heresies saying they are “jokes.”
The show itself opens with a dream of his first address, more along the lines of what HBO’s (liberal) audience might expect: endorsing gay marriage, contraception, and even abortion. This would, as one of the cardinals says in the dream, effectively remove Belardo immediately from the Catholic Church, despite his position as pontiff. The pope may be infallible when speaking ex cathedra, but heresy remains heresy even if spoken by the pope.
But Lenny Belardo is even more conservative than most conservative Catholics would call for. The opening scene gives the impression that the pope’s very youth would guide him to support liberal causes — but everything afterward underscores that the exact opposite is the truth. This is why the first episode is a bait-and-switch. Those looking for a liberal pope will be sorely disappointed, or so we are led to believe.
As of yet, HBO has only released two episodes, so it would be premature to judge The Young Pope as sacred or sacrilege. Nevertheless, with the second episode, it is off to a strong start. One can only hope that Italians are able to portray conservatives in a better light than one normally expects from Hollywood. Episode 2 provides ample grounds for such hope.