PRINT February 2017


HBO’s The Young Pope

The Young Pope, 2017–, still from a TV show on HBO. Season 1, episode 2. Center: Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law).

NEAR THE BEGINNING of The Young Pope, Pius XIII—the freshly elected pontiff played by Jude Law in this new HBO series directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino—is asked to meet with the Holy See’s chief marketing strategist, who expresses her deep alarm that the church has not yet begun production on its greatest piece of merchandise: the pope himself, whose likeness would generate billions in income through its appearance on everything from plates and ashtrays to key chains. Pius, however, refuses to allow his image to be exploited, suggesting that it cannot harbor such significance for the church—but his contrarian stance doesn’t arise from any of the pieties we might expect. Speaking with the strategist and the Vatican secretary of state, he asks, rhetorically, “Who is the most important author of the last twenty years?” (Answer: Salinger.) Electronic-music group? (Daft Punk.) Artist? (Banksy.) And so on, until he underlines what all these figures have in common: None of them allow themselves to be photographed or their image to circulate. So it is that the pope will forever reside in the shadows, never to be seen, creating more value for the church than any representation ever could.

As an exercise in pop deconstruction, Law’s monologue is right up there with Meryl Streep’s bravura recitation in The Devil Wears Prada of cerulean blue’s precipitate passage from haute couture runway designs to the rumpled sweater on her assistant’s closet floor. But Pius’s canny meditation on media manipulation and power—the secret sauce of the Catholic Church, whose capacity to inspire through gilded awe spans the centuries—is but the opening salvo in this program’s satirical assault on a fraught political landscape deeply resonant with our own. The youngest pope ever appointed (and the first American), Pius emerges as the conclave’s selection only to shock everyone in the Vatican with his erratic behavior, upending the best-laid plans of the clergy and its various menageries. (Some prelates’ best guess is that his rise came about as a majority concluded he could be easily manipulated; others wonder privately if in his ascendance the Holy Spirit has made itself known.) More liberal members of the clergy are afraid the pope has been so poorly vetted that no one truly knows his intentions—although his choice of moniker is foreboding enough, given its implicit nod to Pius XI, for whom the appearance of Mussolini was, as one cardinal wryly notes, a matter of “divine providence.” (Pius XII, for his part, earned the epithet “Hitler’s Pope.”) Darkly underscoring parallels to contemporary political life, Sorrentino has the new pontiff deliver his first public address entirely in silhouette—shades of political stagecraft from last summer’s Republican National Convention—proclaiming (after the camera executes a few nice verité pans across a diverse populace in St. Peter’s Square) that the days of ecumenicalism, tolerance, and consensus are gone. In their wake will emerge a church whose power resides in inaccessibility, a world with “no room for free will,” and a God before whom one must stand alone and without whom one is “as good as dead.”

Dark thunderclouds gather overhead during that speech. And from episode to episode, what we see in The Young Pope is the daily life of a Vatican whose citizenry are newly coming to terms with their sacred institutions. What was taken for granted for decades now seems far less certain. In this respect, a lowercase, courtly politics continually plays out, embroidered with Sorrentino’s lightly ironic touches and dryly comedic performances by Diane Keaton (as Sister Mary, the pope’s maternal figure and central adviser) and Silvio Orlando (as Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s secretary of state and chief advocate for business as usual in the face of Pius’s roiling policy moves). But most promising—and provocative—in this narrative is an uppercase Politics revolving around the most fundamental understanding of belief as it relates to the forging and sustaining (or destruction) of such institutions. In this regard, The Young Pope is striking time and again for its schizophrenic doubling of ancient and contemporary ritual, with its religious processions readily summoning high fashion’s bright catwalks, and its images of prehistoric figurines overlaid by the synthetic frequencies of electronic music. The ancient drives and impulses, it seems, have never truly receded into the past; we just stopped paying attention to them, or failed to recognize them in the shapes newly taken. The question here, then, revolves around the adopted form of The Young Pope itself and the passage, whether aesthetic or pedagogical—making use of the very media theory its protagonist so deftly employs—the series might take through the culture at large. For the time being, the program is as opaque, and engaging, as Pius XIII himself.

Tim Griffin is Executive Director and Chief Curator of The Kitchen in New York and a contributing editor of Artforum.