January 25, 2017

TV REVIEW: "THE YOUNG POPE"















HEAR YE! HEAR YE! CAVEAT! CAVEAT! For whatever effusive praise you may hear from me below about HBO's series "The Young Pope," be it known that it is FILLED with nudity and sex scenes in almost every episode. (I have watched the entire first season.) Genitals are never shown, but lots of female breasts, male and female posteriors, and nude or semi-nude sex scenes. Was the nudity pertinent to the story? Yes. But for artists, morality is always aesthetical: What do you show? How do you show it? How much do you show? I believe that probably 80% of the nudity/sex was unnecessary, even though I don't believe its intent was outright lasciviousness. True, Europeans have a different sensibility toward the naked human body, but there are also some universal principles when it comes to film (see John Paul II's guidance below). Nudity and sex scenes will still have their effect on the human body, psyche, imagination and memory of the viewer. So, sadly, very sadly, in my estimation, YP would not be for teens--or for adults struggling with porn issues. But for those who wish to glean the great good that can be had from experiencing YP (as I did), there is always the "look away" method or fast forward (if recorded) or hands-with-splayed-fingers-alternating-up-and-down-in-front-of-your-eyes-like-one-does-for-gore-and-horror.  I employed a combination of the first and third of these methods. I kept asking myself: "Does the good outweigh the bad (excessive nudity/sex scenes) of YP?" My conclusion (at least in my own case) was a resounding YES. If it didn't, I wouldn't even be doing a review.

Some words of wisdom from former actress LeeLee Sobieski (yes, descendant of Jan Sobieski) who left Hollywood to help her fashion designer hubby and raise her kids:

Back in 2012, Sobieski hinted that she was ready to leave Hollywood. “Ninety percent of acting roles involve so much sexual stuff with other people, and I don’t want to do that,” she explained to Vogue. “It’s such a strange fire to play with, and our relationship is surely strong enough to handle it, but if you’re going to walk through fire, there has to be something incredible on the other side.” --US Weekly

Please also check out this guidance from John Paul II on images of the body in art and media:



INCREDIBLY MISLEADING TRAILER, YOUTUBE CLIPS, FIRST EPISODE, PUBLICITY, BUZZ

In case you already watched the trailer for "The Young Pope," some YouTube clips or even the first one or two episodes and wrote it off (as I did) as an easy, sleazy (and perhaps bizarre) pot shot at the Catholic Church, you may wish to give it a second chance. We were all misled. It's too bad that the first episode is not indicative of the series. Those who wanted to see pot shots? They're gonna be disappointed. Those who got offended (YP's real audience, I think)? You already lost 'em.
I was contacted by The Catholic Register (Toronto's Archdiocesan newspaper) to do an interview on it, and my first reaction was: Nope, not interested. Actually this was my exact email response:

The premise of "The Young Pope" seems to be rather meh, sophomoric, silly, juvenile:
"a cool, swinging, good-looking pope who (scandal!) breaks all the rules and makes
the Church 'progressive'! Wheee!"

I also thought that it might be about bureaucracy. Yawn. There is nothing, nothing, nothing more boring in a movie than bureaucracy--especially Church bureaucracy. This is why the film "The Third Miracle" is an utter failure and soul-crushingly boring. Someone thought that the internal legalities of the Catholic Church was entertainment.

But this is not at all what "The Young Pope" is about. To the contrary, the young pope (a fifty-year-old American played with aplomb by a New-York-accented Shakespearean Jude Law) is actually a  traditionalist. A big chunk of the first episode was the young pope's nightmare. The young pope is a disciplined, somewhat harsh, orthodox, somewhat arrogant, wet behind the ears, passionate, authoritative, reckless, faithful, prayerful, macho, flawed but with penetrating insight into humanity, unexpected and unpredictable, media savvy, walking contradiction (as is the series itself). YP is deep not cheap. It is not mean-spirited. YP is unlike anything I have ever seen. It is profound. It almost defies description. Only a Catholic, only an insider, only a man who cares about God (and the Church) would have undertaken "The Young Pope," such as it is. (It also really helps to be Catholic and have a thorough knowledge of your Catholic Faith--otherwise you might possibly get a little lost or confused: Does the Church really teach that? Is that really how Cardinals are?)

WHY WAS "THE YOUNG POPE" EVEN MADE?

We always need to ask (as I was taught in film school): "Why was this project even made? What is the point? What difference does it make whether or not this project gets/got made?" And we were taught that the audience should always ask: "So what? Why should I watch your thing? Why should I care?" So why was YP made? I don't know. The interviews with the Oscar-winning writer-director, Paolo Sorrentino, have been distinctly, decidedly and disappointedly unenlightening. He even does injustice to his own character, accepting interviewers' superficial, politicized, polarized caricatures of him. Why does he go along with this? Is it possible he thinks he actually created such a thin character OR he's trying to go along with perceptions so that people will watch OR he allows his audience to see only what they are capable of seeing/interpreting OR his Italian was poorly translated/transcribed OR he didn't understand the question or others' explications of his work OR he subconsciously created a masterpiece and meanings he didn't even intend or wasn't even aware of? Um, I think NOT to all of the above.

LONELINESS

One theme (among so many in YP) that Sorrentino says he was going for is "loneliness." Yes. Evidenced. But not just the loneliness of "the top," of the "ultimate" good guy in white in the palatial and secretive expanses of the Vatican, or the fated, celibate prelate. YP is about the existential loneliness of every person vis-a-vis one another and God. Not "the universe": GOD. (I can just hear "Lenny," the young Pope Pius XIII, say that last sentence with his inimitable determination and clarity. It's kind of scary that I almost think of him as a real person now. Yes, I got sucked in, I got hooked, I got dazzled by Sorrentino's breathtaking filmmaking.) Incidentally (or not), Sorrentino has the pope give us at least four of the most beautiful explanations for priestly celibacy I have ever encountered.

But are we really so lonely before God? Is God as "silent" as the hackneyed, hopeless, stuck, go-to popular image of God-Void would have us believe? Or is YP right that "God is closer to you than the pillow you lay your head on at night?"

GOD

You see, YP is all about God. Not those who follow Him or speak for Him. God is not just a breathing (though unseen) character in the series (a challenging film feat), He is the other half of Lenny's tightest relationship. And we feel Him and we experience Him with Lenny (a near impossible film feat). When Lenny prays, we are witness to one of the most beautiful sights on earth: a man who loves God who humbles himself and experiences a greater strength than he could ever have on his own. It reminded me of King David. Why is it so beautiful? Because we are never more powerful, never more ourselves, never more fully fulfilled and realized than when we turn to God-Love from Whom we came and to Whom we are returning. We were created BY God and FOR God, so we are totally in sync when we open ourselves and our lives and our desires and our doings up to Him. What is central to Lenny's life? God and God alone. "Is the world right about me? Am I cruel? I'm trying to do all for the love of God." --Lenny in Confession

A "MAN'S POPE"

Pius XIII is a "man's pope." He knows how to exercise male authority. He "stands in the breach" in a way only men do. As we say in Theology of the Body circles: the idea that women are more religious than men is pure bunk. Adam knew God first. Adam was alone with God first. Adam had his own unique relationship with God. If Adam was supposed to guard the Garden, how did the serpent get in? Adam didn't do what Jesus did (and what the young pope does), what every man needs to do when confronted with something bigger and stronger than himself: cry out to God for help. Acknowledge the source of his greatness and strength and the need for more of it from God.



THE YOUNG POPE AND WOMEN

His understanding of, perspective on and relationship with women is open, reverent and always appropriate, but never overly-deferential. He has unique relationships with each of the women in his life: the many, many nuns that dot the papal landscape; the Vatican PR woman who's as knowing and smart-alecky as he is (they could be twins); the infertile young wife of a Swiss guard; the duplicitous Sr. Antonia; his long-lost mother; his first and only teenage love. (However, the young wife of the Swiss guard is a highly unrealistic character. She's airheaded and childish and she thinks she's some kind of innocent--even while she conducts an affair with a priest. Hmmmmmm. But the pope is very merciful to her. She is the only super-annoying character.) In addition, "La Mama" looms large in Italian culture and Italian Catholicism, so, naturally, the Blessed Virgin Mary, talk of mothers and motherhood is organic in YP. The silent nuns in off-white (perpetually doing laundry outdoors) seem to be the innocence and peace and idealized feminine at the Vatican. They and the pope have a silent and joyful understanding.

THE CONVOLUTED ABORTION DIALOGUE

Toward the end of the series, Lenny and his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) conduct a convoluted conversation about abortion (early in his pontificate, Pius XIII has withdrawn the ability of ordinary priests to give absolution in Confession to women who have had abortions, in order to send a message about the seriousness of abortion--I missed whether they now have to go to a bishop or how they get absolution). This super-silly exchange never once mentions or questions abortion as the taking of a human life. Only that it's breaking some kind of arcane Church rules and arcane Scripture passages. Arcane! The writer-director even has the intellectual dishonesty and gall to quote Aquinas (whose 13th century, pre-scientific era teachings on biology, especially with regard to when and how life begins, were notoriously way off the mark).

At some level, it feels that Sorrentino is overreaching trying to show that he is a "friend" of women. That he's hip to their "concerns," that he's "listening." He even has an array of "FEMEN" style women protestors (topless, of course) pop up in the Vatican Gardens. Sigh. So misguided.

"A SAINT"

Many who know Lenny call him "a saint," including someone who knows him best, who raised him at the orphanage: Sr. Mary (a winning Diane Keaton in a lovely, authentic-looking habit)--who has been called to Rome to be Pope Pius XIII's private assistant. And we scratch our heads at this accolade because Lenny is also a bit of a jerk. But we shall see later why this is said of him. However! Be it known that the Church does not accept any kind of personal gifts or miracles (performed before death) as signs of sanctity. They are simply gifts of God. A "saint" is one who, first and foremost, practices heroic virtue, which, perhaps, the shrewd and unconventionally wise and periodically kind, chain-smoking Lenny does also. (Sr. Mary is also a chain smoker. The smoking is a bit of a flippant gimmick, but you get used to it. Certainly a vice, not a virtue.)

CAN YOU HANDLE WARTS?

"The Young Pope" is an incredible blend of the human and the divine, with all the human warts on full display (and moles: a huge, humorous mole protrudes from an Italian Cardinal's visage). If you can't handle warts and the grittiness of life unvarnished, the foibles of human beings (including human beings "of the cloth")--YP may not be for you. But remember these words of JP2G: "The Church is divine and human. If it weren't human, there'd be no place for us in it." Fr. Benedict Groeschel, CFR, used to encourage us nuns to "Get in touch with your humanity. Don't be afraid of it. It's the only thing God can actually use." Why do people run from their own and others' humanity? Why do people want life (or certain realms of life) to be pollyanna, and insist that they be so?  I believe it's mainly because they flee from suffering. Or are in denial that they suffer. Or haven't really suffered yet in life! Anyone who has let themselves acknowledge their own suffering is not scandalized at the imperfections of others.

"There are many things that can only be seen through eyes that have cried. " --Archbishop Oscar Romero

UPPING THE ANTE

"The Young Pope" is a tour de force. It's a fine display of the Catholic imagination at its best. There is so much more to say about it that time and space will not permit. I seriously considered commentating on each episode of the 10 episodes in the first season. YP deals with a pedophile bishop in NYC. A kangaroo who is the pope's alter ego. Vatican intrigue gone haywire at the conclave that elected him--due to the interference of the Holy Spirit. A weasel-y politico Italian Cardinal (a hilarious, magnificent and spot-on Silvio Orlando) for whom Pius XIII is his worst nightmare--but who also lovingly cares for a severely disabled, nonverbal young man who serves as his confidante. I could go on and on.

At any rate, YP has upped the ante for religious "films." (It's shot like a film and plays out like a film and Sorrentino says he enjoys blurring the lines between cinema and TV because it's all the same to him.) All my favorite religious films are quickly paling in comparison--because of God. What if we actually took God seriously like the young pope? Sought God earnestly and with all our heart like the young pope? Perhaps I am so enamoured of YP because it "goes there" in so many ways. It is only halfway typically "European." The other half feels North American, and the cast and locales are delightfully international. It uses silence and facial expressions unbelievably well. And the lighting! Ecstatic! The soundtrack is a brilliant mix of the contemporary, the whimsical, the classical and the ethereal.

Somewhere deep in Sorrentino's soul, he must get it. He must get God. And God's Church. To create something so beautiful, so filled with beauty, so aware and understanding of beauty, a writer-director-cinematographer must have a lot of beauty in their soul. You can't just pull "The Young Pope" out of a hat. Even if you're Italian.

If you are going to watch it at all, DO NOT WATCH "THE YOUNG POPE" IN YOUTUBE SNIPPETS!!! WHAT A HORRIBLE THING TO DO TO GREAT ART.
Binge watching is recommended.

OTHER STUFF:

--"We have forgotten God!" --the young pope's inaugural address

--"Priests give God weight." "Priests must TRY till the very end." --an ancient Cardinal

--"The Confessional is our operating room. We're not afraid of sin and scandal, the way surgeons are not afraid of blood." --the young pope

--"Think about all the things you like. That's God." --the young pope in answer to a child's letter: "What is God like?"

--To an African country at war: "Give me peace and I will give you God." --the young pope

--"Only the scent of goodness will remain on earth." --Blessed Juana (a fictional young saint from Guatamala)

--I believe that Italians are obsessed with beauty unlike any other nationality. But they also know, create and understand beauty.

--Every artist exposes their own autobiography in their art.

--There are minor technical Church-y inaccuracies in YP. But they are inconsequential compared with the story and the beauty and God.

--We've never seen a screen figure anything like the young pope before. And we desperately needed to. Brava.

--"The Young Pope" is God NOT at a distance. God is nigh.

--"The Young Pope" is brilliant.

--The lengthy conversations in Italian (and one in Spanish) have NO subtitles.

--The true, the good and the beautiful come together in YP. They are shown to be absolutely connected.

--When asked: how do priests live without women? "Stupid priests go to women on the side. The smart ones know that sexual pleasure is overrated in our society." --the young pope

--When the young pope asks one of the ever-smiling Latino Cardinals about his vocation story: "Life is so short. I decided to opt for eternity."

--"I don't see God because I don't see my mother and father." --Lenny

--"I want great love stories and fanatics for God. Lovers are fanatics. The last papacy was popular. Lots of friendship. Crowds are distractible but indifferent: their hearts have been emptied of God. You can only measure love in terms of intensity, not numbers." --Pope Pius XIII

--SOME INCREDIBLE THEOLOGY OF THE BODY MOMENTS. A high-priced call girl: "My clients say I am proof of God, but it's not true. They just can't see far." This is a perfect illustration of turning the body into an idol instead of an icon (with icons, we acknowledge beauty but let it lead us to God in the right way: not by use, lust, fornication, adultery and indulgence--which is not the way to God, or even a good way to enjoy the finer things in life).

ICONOCLASM--denies the gift
ICON--goes through gift to God
IDOL--stops at the gift, turns it into God

--"You know, I got involved simply because I wanted to work with this wonderful director and writer.... I think his visual storytelling is incredibly grand and beautiful and mysterious, and I love his humanity of his subject matter and his writing, and the wit. So for me, stepping into costume and on set everyday was a thrill because I knew I was being photographed in the hands of a real master."

"Paolo said it's really a piece about solitude, something we all have and something that can be incredibly enlightening, but also incredibly painful."

"We weren't setting out to poke fun at anyone. We weren't setting out to scandalize." --Jude Law

--A holy gentleman asked me (in a challenging tone): "Sister, how has 'The Young Pope' helped your holiness?" I had to think about that (besides all the great insights from YP). But then I got back to him: "It has made my prayer bolder." (And I was pretty bold already.)

--One reviewer called YP "the gutsiest thing you'll see on TV all year." And it is. But not because it took on the papacy and the Church. Because it took on God. As God. And got God right.


"You will seek Me and you will find Me
when you seek Me with your whole heart."
--Jeremiah 29:13




8 comments:

  1. REally enjoyed this article. I agree and i agree too that the discussion about abortion could have been better (even if the Pope say "i chose life !"),but the serie give so many smart moments . And all this moments and thoughts remain precious even after the show is ended. The pray in the pool ... the ending of Kurtwell story ...The miracle for the friend's mother .... All very very beautiful .

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    1. The nudity, sex scenes and RIDICULOUS abortion "discussion" really marred the whole thing. But, yes. So many beautiful moments, otherwise. What a mixed bag!

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  2. Thanks for the review! On a related note, can your source the JP2G quote you gave about the church being human and divine? I'm doing a lot of teaching on that subject of late! Thanks.

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  3. I agree and feel the same way about YP. I was hesitant to watch it at first but I am gratified that I chose to watch--even get hooked on the plot. The cinematography, mix of music, the acting, are well worth every second I spent watching it. In this review, however, I wish you had enumerated the quotes about the priesthood. I don't always catch the words.

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  4. I, like you, was put off by the publicity and the first episode. I'm also a little put off by how some of the episodes seem to draaag on, but I think that's normal for episodic television. I also agree with you that the rest of the episodes (although I still have 3 to go) were much better as the story and characters develop. The imagery is beautiful in every shot, the actions and words of the YP are, in a way, the voice of Catholics that are longing for a stronger and more active Church in the world. The characters and story provide insight into the loneliness of people who bear great responsiblities, and the human struggle in the search for a personal encounter with God. The entire series seems to be, among other things, an expression of the director's own search to find and understand God. I recently viewed his Academy Award winning "The Great Beauty" in the Contemporary Global Cinema class at my film school, and I recognize the same theme in that film. In the Great Beauty an aging hedonist tries to deal with loss, regret, and faith. Concerning faith, he tries to talk seriously with a cardinal at a party, who puts him off in favor of meeting a celebrity, but he also receives some wisdom from a visiting Mother-Teresa caricature called "the saint" who tells him "roots are important". Throughout the film, he is searching for meaning in all the sensual things life has to offer, but the closest he comes is when he has a personal encounter with "the saint". I see the same composition and cinematography in the Young Pope, and also, the same human search for God. Although Sorrentino gets some things wrong about the Church and how it actually works, the fact that it's on TV right now at all, let alone HBO, is pretty amazing. I've felt a calling to try to create something beautiful for God by telling these kinds of stories in way that will connect with people. The Young Pope gives me hope that it's still possible to do that in today's media climate!

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  5. Sister -- Thank you so very much for this excellent substantive review. Like you, I had asked, "So why was YP made?" And I too had answered, "I don't know." I've been trying to figure it out and googling for reviews, only to find not a whole lot from a solid Catholic perspective. Now, you have provided that and given me some things to ponder.

    As for your reference to "the first season," I would hope that, given the final scene, they would simply stop here and keep the mystery. A second season would either only tread water, or worse would ruin the first.

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    1. I think you might be right about the second season.... It felt complete to me....

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  6. I just finished this series and I have to say, I was very impressed.

    One of my favorite quotes was from the very first episode, when they talked about how "naive" the African bishops are: "Do you Africans really believe the Holy Spirit elects the Pope?"
    "We Africans, no. But we Catholics, yes."
    What a beautiful way to combat the cynicism of politics in that scene.

    The scenes where Pius/Lenny would pray often brought me to tears- particularly when he prayed for Esther and Peter. That scene to me-his prayer decidedly- was extremely powerful.
    Additionally, I can't help but feel that the birth of baby Pius coincided with a sort of "rebirth," of Pius as pope. It's after this baby that he begins to soften and truly recognize the necessity of love for others. It's a beautiful series. Will be passing along your review, as it's so well done.

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