Near the end of the first episode of The Young Pope, Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII tersely informs his Macchiavellian advisor Voiello (Silvio Orlando) that his actual priorities are not his homily or meetings with the college of cardinals but improving the Vatican Radio broadcast and getting a full catalog of the gifts sent to the Pope. It’s doubtful that Young Pope was explicitly constructed as one long, surreal riff on Trump but that showdown between the impetuous, rude dark horse Pope and the Vatican insider with no less than 18 books written about his machinations already stands out as one of the most striking commentaries on the political world of 2017. And like the year that led us to this point, Young Pope is bizarre and anxious, its twists and turns seemingly random except in their consistent upheaval of our notions of how the world should work.
With The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino is less concerned with confronting the haughty, dangerous traditions of Catholicism a la Doubt than he is with using the Vatican as a frame for a story about human decisions causing reality to unravel. Pius is seemingly brought into the position of the Pope in order to keep his mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) in check; nearly every authority figure Pius runs into views him as a puppet (one cardinal even explicitly labels him as such) and the dreams that Pius has that open the show indicate that he’s fully aware of this, to the extent that he even dreams of his homily getting interrupted by Voiello informing him he’s not the Pope.
The pilot never gives any indication that Pius had sought to become Pope and the nun who raised him (Diane Keaton) appears as surprised and concerned about this development as anyone else but both figures rise to the occasion with the intent of shaking up the Vatican system. Like Trump, they don’t really seem to have a plan for what to do once things have been suitably shaken, but that’s besides the point. They merely want to disrupt an established order and achieve their selfishes desires along the way, be it the acquisition of Cherry Coke Zero and a warehouse of papal gifts or the humiliating debasement of “The Man Behind the Scenes,” as Voiello’s most recent biography labels him.
Though there are numerous scenes of gossiping and tense showdowns between various Vatican leaders, Sorrentino’s focus is on the discomforting sense that things are not going the way they should be. In more stable times, that may have caused The Young Pope to seem a little too loose and flighty for its ambitions, but in this year, shortly before the inauguration of Pope Pius’s Washington DC analogue, the effect is startling. Sorrentino shoots the Vatican City as a series of overwhelming spaces, where every square foot is intended to communicate how tiny you are in the grand scheme of things. When Keaton’s Sister Mary first arrives at the Vatican, she touches down on a helipad that some children had been using as a makeshift roller rink, while Pius stands in his papal best, shocking white against the dark green of shrubbery; she looks tiny and shaken leaving the helicopter, and though Pius does his best to look glamorous and menacing as he looks out towards her, you still get the sense that he is in danger of being consumed by the environment behind him even as he believes he has mastery of it.
Shortly after, when Pius leads Mary to their apartments, he informs her that she will be at the true center of the church, a statement that initially concerns her until he makes it clear that he means himself. It’s meant to be a calming statement, but it really serves as further commentary on Pius’ effect on the system around him. For the few who are close to him, Pius is the calm eye of the storm, but all around him is chaos. Pius takes delight in this but seems to forget that storms are powerful but short lived, the damage they cause always lasting longer than they do. And there are plenty of moments foreshadowing the fall that is sure to come to Pius, the chief one being his adamant refusal to acknowledge heavenly signs that don’t abide by his belief that propagate his own larger than life image.
That radio interference obsession, for instance, is more than just a character tic, it’s the clearest sign that Sorrentino wants the story of Pius XIII to be the story of someone who refused to listen. Pius’ radio cuts in and out whenever he attempts to commune with God, most notably in a scene where Pius believes God has shut him out and therefore does not exist. Pius is that most dangerous of holy men, a figure who has interpreted God’s unwillingness to grant him favors as not only proof of nonexistence but also proof that he must therefore be his own god, which is illustrated immediately when Pius’ dream homily is framed by the clouds parting for him. Pius views his orphan origin as not only celestial abandonment but also evidence that he is a holy symbol, forced to be his own father, son and holy ghost. Pius’ lack of a background is treated by his church rivals as a dangerous element, making him difficult to predict; as Voiello puts it, the sins of our past will be the sins of our future, but if you have no real past, what then?
Voiello chose Pius for the position because he thought the young pope was easily malleable, in part because Pius has substituted the icons of the church for his lack of a family past. But the third top priority Pius names is the reacquisition of a holy relic loaned to the church in Washington D.C., indicating that Pius is only interested in the icons of the Vatican because of their value and shine. Voiello and his allies thought Pius would be easy to mold and be a telegenic, entertaining shift away from his progressive predecessor but by ignoring how that lack of a past would cause Pius to perpetually seek out attention and cater to “the people” even as he despises them, this fictional Vatican made itself as vulnerable as the GOP and America did when they allowed Trump to become normalized.
If that wasn’t clear enough, Pius also recklessly confesses (then retracts) that he does not believe in God because he lacks the voice of a conscience. From a Vatican standpoint, it’s disturbing because the Pope is intended as the earthly vessel of God, but from a humanist standpoint it’s disturbing because it seems to hint that Pius is a sociopath, a ruthless, unfeeling machine with no moral compass. What happens to an authority system when it is led by someone with no internal monologue other than their own ambition? History has a lot of examples answering that question, and none of them bode well, but what makes The Young Pope so fascinating and effective is that it wants to answer that question not with dry history and obvious dire consequences but that hazy, anxious feeling so many of us have been experiencing for the past year, as fears we wrote off as too illogical and absurd have come to fruition. The Young Pope should therefore be viewed as a guilt-free way of laughing at the sorry state we’re in, sublime and beautifully rendered to make it go down that much easier but still as queasy and disturbing as the steady volume of baffling headlines 2017 continues to bring us.
Nick Hanover got his degree from Disneyland, but he’s the last of the secret agents and he’s your man. Which is to say you can find his particular style of espionage here at Loser City as well as Ovrld, where he contributes music reviews and writes a column on undiscovered Austin bands. You can also flip through his archives at Comics Bulletin, which he is formerly the Co-Managing Editor of, and Spectrum Culture, where he contributed literally hundreds of pieces for a few years. Or if you feel particularly adventurous, you can always witness his odd .gif battles with friends and enemies on twitter: @Nick_Hanover