One of the most curious and complex television series of 2017, The Young Pope marks Paolo Sorrentino’s transition to television, although its charm lies partly in the way in which it resists any easy or seamless translation of cinematic into televisual language. Released just as Sorrentino’s big-screen career was starting to ebb in the wake of Youth, it’s easily the most dazzlingly flamboyant exercise in his entire oeuvre, shot through with a funky, madcap zest for incongruity that makes even The Great Beauty feel staid and conservative by comparison. As the title might suggest, the plot revolves around the latest accession to the Papacy – Lenny Belardo, elected as Pius XIII, played by Jude Law – and the way in which the Vatican responds to his new regime. Part of the series revolves around Lenny’s backstory, his childhood as an orphan, his search for his parents, and his complicated relationship with Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton, the American nun who took him in as a young child.
On the other hand, there is Lenny’s relationship with the Vatican as a system, a situation that is considerably complicated by the fact that he is the first American Pope, resulting in a series of fractious cultural differences that constellate around his relationship with Angelo Voiello, Cardinal Secretary of State, played by Silvio Orlando, who finds his fortunes and authority shifting when Lenny brings in Sister Mary to be his personal secretary. Beyond these two aspects – the public and the private – it’s hard to do justice to the series in a conventional plot synopsis, partly because it is so metonymic and associative in its unexpected twists and turns, and partly because Lenny’s character is so playfully inscrutable, inconsistent and downright incoherent (at times) that it is very difficult to ever fully reconcile his public and private selves. Indeed, this inscrutability is the real narrative thrust of the series, since from the moment he ascends to the Papcy he breaks with the entire history of Vatican public relations to eschew all form of publicity, to the point where his deferral of his inaugural address and refusal to allow himself to be photographed or depicted in the media renders him a greater social media event than any Pope before him.
For that reason, many of the most memorable exchanges in the series are anchored in Lenny’s relationship with Sofia, played by Cecile de France, who is in charge of marketing for the Vatican, and brings a corporate mentality to Sorrentino’s baroque mise-en-scenes that contributes in no small way to the picaresque flavor of the series as a whole. At first, she strongly disagrees with Lenny’s promotional strategy, but gradually comes to respect it, and then to actively encourage it as an unprecedented way of gaining publicity for the Papacy in a pluralist and increasingly post-Papal era: “I see two media events. One has already taken place: that’s you. The other is about to happen.” However, it’s not merely Lenny’s media image but his actual ideology that is obscured, since not only does he eschew any direct representation but any clear or consistent policy, appearing very open-minded, irreverent and even blasphemous in certain respects, but also insisting that he wants to lead Catholicism into a new era of uncompromising conservatism, and renewed Papal authority.
For a great deal of the series, then, it is impossible to discern whether Lenny is a reactionary or a radical, orthodox or heterodox. At first, it seems as if this might merely be a symptom of his early Papacy, but as the series proceeds it becomes clear that this indiscernibility is his Papacy, through which he often seems to promote an ultra-conservative agenda, but also appears more radical than anyone else in the series. In the same way, his chastity is more or less unquestioned – quite a daring move for such a charismatic protagonist – even as it seems to render his sensuous appetites more pronounced than those anyone around him, with Sorrentino’s lavish compositions often framing him within the fecundity of the Vatican Gardens, where many of the most significant Papal decisions and alliances are brokered.
It wouldn’t be quite right, however, to suggest that The Young Pope simply conflates radical and reactionary agendas, or presents Lenny as somehow beyond or outside politics. Instead, by about two-thirds of the way through, it becomes clear that he is, ultimately, a conservative, a reactionary, and more orthodox than anyone else in the series, but that he can only deliver this ideology by adopting a persona so radical that it often seems to touch his actual beliefs with the same radicality. More specifically, it becomes clear that Lenny does really believe in the Catholic Church, and Papal authority, as the final word, but that in order to inhabit the role of transcendental signifier in an era of widespread pluralism he has to craft that finality in a very particular way. For, if the Pope has to have the last word by definition, and we live in a world driven by religious and cultural pluralism, then Lenny’s insistence on unilateralism can only really take one form – that of a troll, or someone who deliberately triggers other people – even if that often requires him to troll or trigger his own values in the process. After all, trolls are nearly always conservatives who use online forums as a way of compensating for a consensus they no longer enjoy, and a last laugh they can no longer experience anywhere else, with the result that Lenny is often comic in the same way that Trump is comic, less as a matter of conscious intent than a structural necessity: “Ever since I was little, I’ve learned to confound people’s ideas of what is going on in my head.”
While Lenny’s subjectivity is very much in and of our contemporary trigger economy, however, he exceeds Trump in his capacity to use trolling to articulate belief, especially as his accession to the Papacy coincides with the mid-career crisis of faith that – according to his embittered mentor Cardinal Spencer, played by James Cromwell – plagues all priests as they prepare for “second ministry” and its new apprehension of the irrational and inexplicable. Like the most sophisticated trolls, Lenny’s comic mode never quite articulates faith but instead deflects doubt, if only by instilling more doubt into the minds of those around him, creating a milieu of doubt in which his own faith appears in more splendid and exemplary relief, even if it is never directly or emphatically articulated as such. No surprise, then, that the most dazzling scenes are those in which Lenny holds sessions, since whether or not his guests are aiming to flatter or undermine him, he always thwarts their expectations, and comes away with the last word, continuing and affirming the transcendental Word in the process. In these wonderful sequences, there’s a profound inscrutability to Lenny – or Pius – that goes beyond the brooding “depth” of quality television to exude a genuinely fragmented, inconsistent and incoherent selfhood – the selfhood of trolls – that marks The Young Pope as emphatically “post-quality” in its outlook.
Among other things, that means that the series never quite conveys the same atmosphere from one episode to the next, instead opting for a discontinuous atonality that (unlike the fantasy of quality television) simply doesn’t make sense when viewed as a ten-hour movie, instead demanding a distended and even distracted serial spectatorship for its tonal ebbs and flows to properly ramify. Like Lenny, the series never quite gives you what you want, expect or demand, to the point where the final episode almost plays like a different series, which is presumably why Sorrentino has chosen to rebrand the second “season” as The New Pope. What’s curious, however, is that this trolling discourse also provides the foundation for Lenny to have his own change in attitude as the series proceeds, as his conservatism requires him to adopt such a discontinuous persona that that conservative ideology itself becomes discontinuous by the finale, when he makes his first address as a set of questions, rather than a definitive statement of belief or intent: “Are we happy or are we blind? Are we good or are we beautiful? Are we dead or are we alive? Are we tired or are we vigorous?”
In other words, the post-quality discontinuities of the series reveal themselves to be the perfect parameters for a conversion narrative, even or especially as that’s not what this initially appears to be in its opening episode. When critics call a text “Felliniesque” they often really mean it traffics in a bland Italianate nostalgia, but The Young Pope is Felliniesque in a more authentic way – in its taste for the revelatory potential in discontinuous, dispersed and decadent shifts in tone, exemplified here in one of the most deflective, disarming and destabilising soundtracks I have ever experienced on either the big or small screen. That discontinuity has always been a part of Sorrentino’s work, and yet what is so striking here is that it is only intensified in his own conversion from film to television, with The Young Pope accentuating all his atonalities rather than revealing any deeper continuity that the exigencies of a two-hour film might have been expected to have removed only as a matter of temporal necessity. To watch the series, then, is to see a certain fantasy of quality television – film converted into television – enacted and imploded, since there’s been no series before now that has been so lavish and expansive in its cinematic scope, nor so determined to refrain from anything resembling the coherence or compactness of a conventional cinematic experience. While I can see how some viewers might have found Sorrentino’s style and address insufferably pretentious, I loved this refusal of any pretence to the big screen, in favour of something that is neither cinema nor television, and instead demands to be taken on its own increasingly strange set of terms.