This week the HBO mini series The Young Pope is being released on DVD. I watched the entire series twice. The first viewing was by myself and the second was in two marathon sessions with some very Catholic friends in the seminary lounge while my seminarians were on spring break. I had not planned on watching the series upon its initial release, but what piqued my interest was that America, Commonweal, and First Things all had something good to say about it, and if you know anything about these three journals, you know that they don’t tend to agree about most things.
One undeniable aspect of The Young Pope is that Paolo Sorrentino, who wrote and directed the series, made sure that it was beautiful. Nick Ripatrazone of America describes it as “visually arresting.” Celia Wren of Commonweal writes, “The Young Pope is gorgeously shot.” And Matthew Schmitz of First Things insists that, “its images are splendid.” They are all right. Whether it’s the presentation of the Sistine Chapel, St. Peter’s Square, wonderfully ornate vestments, habited sisters doing papal laundry, Pius XIII smoking a cigarette, or a kangaroo hopping through the Vatican Gardens, the cinematography is stunning.
Another element of the series that received serious attention from reviewers (but unfortunately went unnoticed by the Catholic press) is the series’ soundtrack. It’s fantastic. The opening credits play against Delvin’s cover of Bob Dylan’s “All Along the Watchtower.” (Check out Bishop Barron’s commentary on the classic Dylan song here.) The music of Andrew Bird, Recondite, Flume, and Jefferson Airplane also seem to find all the perfect spaces in the series, enhancing with sound what is already so satisfying to the eye.
Cinematography and soundtrack aside, the series itself is somewhat polarizing, but there’s something for everyone. For those who wish the Church would stop trying to appeal so much to the culture, Jude Law, who plays the orphan pope, Pius XIII, is your man. He is the first American pope and was elected because the cardinals at the conclave thought he would be easy to manipulate. Nothing could be further from the truth. Pius XIII retrieves the papal tiara from Washington, DC and wears it along with white gloves, papal slippers, and the heaviest of copes as he gives a scolding speech to his cardinals about the problems of tolerance, modernity, and bad liturgy. It would make Pius IX blush.
On the other side, you have a young pope who is rather worldly. He smokes, occasionally blasphemes, and is not afraid to break protocol and time-honored Vatican traditions. In fact, Pius XIII won’t allow himself to be seen or photographed for most of the miniseries. He thinks that the celebrity of the papacy has in fact hurt the Church and wants people to focus on God and not the face or the person of Peter’s successor. And although he does wear some fancy papal attire when he’s working, he does venture away from the Vatican from time to time in casual attire and relishes in his humanity.
One of the major themes of The Young Pope is that things are not as they first seem. I know many people who turned off the series and told me it was garbage after watching twenty-five minutes of the first episode because they hated Pius XII’s opening papal address. When I asked them if they watched long enough to realize that the speech was actually a dream sequence and that the content of the speech was the antithesis of Pius XIII’s papacy, they looked puzzled. (I read Bill Donahue’s words on the series and I fear that he fell into this very trap.) The same can be said about Pius XIII’s understanding of love, celibacy, and the priesthood. If you only watch through four episodes, you won’t ever come to see the full and surprisingly thoughtful outlook on the nature of love in episodes eight, nine and ten. Characters really do develop in this series, and it’s pleasing to follow such transformation and conversion. And if you’re honest, you’ll probably be able to see a little of yourself in each of the characters, and you’ll hope for their redemption, just as you hope for your own.
Admittedly, there are things not to like in The Young Pope as well. Some of the theology is rather heterodox, especially in terms of the nature of God and his attributes. There are some brief sex scenes, and although Ripatrozone writes, “the show plays with sensuality and sexuality but is never gratuitous,” I wonder if such scenes were really necessary. Finally, I’ve been Catholic long enough to know that the Church is political, but the series makes one wonder if the Holy Spirit ever has any room to move with so much ambition, deception and secrecy at work in the Vatican.
When Mother Angelica died a few years ago, I remember watching a YouTube clip from Bishop Barron about her impact on Catholicism in America. One of the things Barron said was that Mother Angelica brought our attention to the supernatural at a time when it was not popular to do so. I want to say that one of the reasons that The Young Pope has drawn so many younger viewers is because it too points to the supernatural in a very attractive and fairly convincing way. To tell you exactly how would be to spoil some surprises. But remember what I said about things not always being what they first seem, especially in the character of Pius XIII.
Although I think there is something in The Young Pope for almost everyone, I don’t think everyone will like it. And if you don’t plan on watching all ten episodes, I wouldn’t even bother with one. But, if you have some time this summer, and especially if you have some good friends – adults, not children – who enjoy not only watching but also discussing good television and film, then I do think you are in for a real treat with The Young Pope. Make sure you pick up some Diet Cherry Coke Zero and at least three oranges for the watch parties. You can thank me later.