Are You Ready for a Wild Papal Ride at the Vatican: Check out HBO's New Drama "The Young Pope" - It's Got a Lot to Offer. There's Much More to it than Meets the Eye.

  The Young Pope - Lenny Belardo, AKA Pius XIII (Played by Jude Law)

The Young Pope - Lenny Belardo, AKA Pius XIII (Played by Jude Law)

Stephen Arch

HBO’s new series “They Young Pope” has been panned by many outlets in their reviews of new and extra-ordinary shows. However, I disagree with their opinions.  “The Young Pope” is a cerebral journey to understanding the realities of religion and what they mean personally and globally to the viewers and to the religious in general.  My feeling is to please give this drama some time.  If you follow the plot line carefully, it just might be one of the more cerebral min-drama HBO has produced.

  Sister Mary (Diane Keaton)

Sister Mary (Diane Keaton)

“The Young Pope” is an HBO series created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law as Lenny Belardo (Pope Pius XIII), Diane Keaton (Sister Mary) and Silvio Orlando (Cardinal Voiello), Cecile De France (Sofia), Javier Camara (Cardinal Gutierrez), Ludivine Sagnier (Esther), and a cast of relatively unknown but excellent Italian actors whose personalities so wonderfully bounce off Lenny’s personality and goals like a metal ball finding its way down a pin ball machine. 

  Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando)

Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando)

CNN’s television critic Brian Lowry, has this to say after only reviewing the first episode of the new drama:   As quirky and eccentric as its title character, "The Young Pope" is an odd duck, starring Jude Law as the first American pontiff. If the goal is to join the ranks of prestige found in many HBO dramas, this 10-part show hasn't got a prayer.”

I disagree.  If Lowry really understood the backstory that exists in this mini-drama, he might not be so willing to pan it. If he actually lived through 47 year old Cardinal Belardo, now Pope Pius XIII’s struggles as a child, he might change his mind.  But no one, unless they are orphaned, can speak to the torment that exists in a Pope who is trying to see love; that is, he is trying to see God. In Belardo's mind, Love equals God. And therein lies the issue at hand.

The following is the introduction to the series. Not only watch as Pius XIII walks past all of the beautiful paintings at the Vatican residence, but pay close attention to the comet, the ball of fire, that upsets, knocks down, the traditional figures in the painting, and then see it knock down the statue of the most beloved modern pope, Pope John Paul II. It speaks volumes about this series.

 That is Lenny’s story.  Additionally, “The Young Pope” requires that the viewer most definitely utilizes the “willing suspension of disbelief” when watching this very different journey.  We are shown in the first two episodes how it began, and now it is up to the rest of the episodes to reach a conclusion, and I do hope that HBO plans to continue this at least for another season when this expires.  As he states in Episode One, “I didn’t have a mother or father to love; therefore, how can I love God?  If I don’t know love, how can I know God?”  That statement lies at the heart of this mini-drama. He states that "if I don't know my mother and father, then how can I know God." This is THE recurring theme throughout the drama.  In order to be THE POPE he wants to be, he has to find love. Not patronizing admiration. Not Pope worship. But Love.

Enter is alter-ego (his “mother) – Diane Keaton plays Sister Mary, the nun who took young Lenny in to the orphanage and who has loved and been by his side throughout his life.  Sister Mary knows things about Lenny that no one else knows. When Belardo is elected pope, he flies her to Rome to be his right hand “nun.”

Much can be made of the relationship between the two:

In Episode Two, as the young pontiff is examining the gifts sent to him from different countries, he discovers that Australia has sent him a kangaroo in a cage.  No one in the Vatican knows what to do with the live kangaroo.  In a very interesting scene, a very moving scene, Belardo uncovers the cage, opens the cage door, and has an immediate connection to the kangaroo. He calms the beast, and then, when it is suggested they put the animal in a zoo, Lenny responds by saying “no, let him loose in the Vatican grounds.”  Sister Mary is not surprised at this event, and later she makes reference to not only the kangaroo “calming” tactics the pope presents, but also she begins to discuss another event that occurred when Lenny was younger;  he cuts her short and tells her to be quiet.  We are left to feel that Lenny has done some miraculous works in the past, but he is not ready to reveal this. Leading Sister Mary to say to Vatican Secretary of State:  “Lenny is a saint. Not just a good man. He is truly a saint.” It is the way she says it, and it is the way she believes it that makes up feel that indeed there is something very special about Lenny Belardo that no one knows but Sister Mary.

And, in a twist to all those who run the Vatican, particularly the cardinals, Lenny makes Sister Mary his personal assistant.  Not only is she a woman, but she has power over Lenny – so much so that rumors abound throughout the Vatican that there are actually two popes:  Lenny and Sister Mary.   When Lenny finds out about these rumors, he quickly nips the rumors in the bud, and he “fires” any cardinal caught spreading that rumor.  Sister Mary, used to calling the new pope by his Christian name, is commanded by Lenny to refer to him from now on as His Holiness – to squelch the rumor that there is more of a relationship that is there that doesn’t really exist, but it does exist and Lenny, Sister Mary, and the audience knows this. Sister Mary knows Lenny, and Lenny does not want her revealing as much as she knows, but he trusts her as an advisor and listens to her when he wants. Sister Mary does not like this, but she does as she is told.

Lenny is portrayed by Sorrentino as a brute who forces his opinion on to more “worldly, more experienced, more prepared” cardinals.  At first glance, it appears that Pope Pius XIII hates the cardinals.  It’s not that. He doesn’t hate anyone.  He just doesn’t know how to love anyone. He doesn’t know how to forgive anyone.  Basically, he cannot get through his past which may have prepared him more to lead the one billion followers he is elected to lead.

I would suggest that if Mr. Lowry truly wants to understand the drama, he watch it more than once and actually listen to what the characters are saying more than just their actions.

I did happen to agree with Lowry’s assessment of this grand attempt that pits the Catholic church against tradition and the new era after I watched the first episode, which was extremely difficult to follow, extremely convoluted, and just weird.  I begrudgingly watched the second episode because I really didn’t have anything else to watch as the Pittsburgh Steelers were being picked apart by the New England Patriots.

The first episode begins with a dream where Pope Pius XIII wakes up, gets dressed, and then proceeds to dress down the faithful gathered at the Vatican to hear is first homily.  Here is an example of what he says (now, mind you, this is a dream, but we don’t find that out until after the scene – which does exacerbate the plot):

Quite strange, don’t you think?

Couple this with his actual homily, held at 9:00 at night, no lighting, because Lenny does not want any one to see his face.  He states "no one is prepared to see my face, my eyes."

After I watched the second episode, as difficult, again, as it was, I didn’t change my mind. However, not to be deterred, and also knowing that HBO has produced some pretty good television:  Game of Thrones, Westworld, Curb Your Enthusiasm, and High Maintenance, to name a few, I decided to give it another go. This time, as I always do when I don’t want to miss one second of dialogue – to me, the aspect of a drama that really carries it along with the actor’s ability to convince – and found out very quickly that there was something “there” in this drama. I wanted to give the drama the benefit of the doubt and really try to understand what was occurring. So, I watched it with closed captions so that I could understand every nuance spoken as I watched.

Episode Three begins to explain this conflict.

The plot is not so simple, and a plot that contains the behind the scenes politics of the Vatican has to lend itself to merit.  The Young Pope is a series of ten episodes immediately following the election of Pope Pius XIII, who actually is a young 47 year old cardinal, Lenny Belardo, who was orphaned as a young boy.  Belardo (Law), er Pius XIII, earns the papal seat because of infighting among the establishment of cardinals.  Actually, we learn that American Cardinal Spencer (a trusted advisor to Lenny) was supposed to be elected pope, but that didn’t work out as he planned. Spencer, played by James Cromwell, turns in a performance of an extremely sad, bitter man who, in the very beginning of the drama, is scene attempting commit suicide by slitting his wrists, only to be stopped by a gaggle of nuns, I suppose, who were assigned to watch over the brooding cardinal. Spencer is Belardo's teacher, friend, and mentor.  But that quickly changes after Lenny is elected Pope and not Spencer. Spencer despises Lenny for becoming the pope and will not help him with his struggles.

We find out that Lenny becomes pope after a supposedly bitter political debate between the liberal wing of the Vatican (led by a faction that includes an admittedly homosexual cardinal Mario Assente (played by Maurizio Lombardi) and Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) who is the Vatican’s Secretary of State who seems hell bent on “controlling” the new pope – actually the plan is revealed later that Lenny was elected pope because the other cardinals thought they could control a young pope who knows absolutely nothing about being a pope and knows very little more about tradition and religion, particularly Roman Catholicism.  Voiello feels that Lenny will be an, in his words, "a telegenic puppet who will bridge the church conservatives and liberals."  Little did he know that Pius XIII would be anything but a puppet.  In fact, the smoking pope (Lenny lights a cigarette:  Voiello:  “Your Holiness, smoking is forbidden in the Vatican.” Lenny: “Oh, who said so?” Voiello: “Pope John Paul II banned smoking in the Vatican.” Lenny:  “So, a Pope banned smoking.  Well, Voiello, I’m the Pope now.” And Lenny lights up a cigarette). This is indicative of the relationship that Lenny has with Voiello throughout the first episodes, which end with Voiello plotting against the Pope, attempting to persuade a beautiful young Italian woman to attempt so seduce the Lenny, giving him cause to bring him down.

The cigarette smoking becomes it's own bit of "Lenny antagonism" that goes on at the Vatican. Lenny smokes. He is not supposed to smoke.  He smokes anyway.  And, he makes it a point very early to smoke in front of any visitors who come to see him, even the President of Greenland.

The plot of The Young Pope has so many twists and turns that it is most difficult to report on it, but know this, I am coming to understand this personal and public battle between an unwanted orphan, forced to grow up without real love form his parents, and a Pope who needs to lead a worldly congregation of 1 billion people.

 Lenny spending time with Sister Mary

Lenny spending time with Sister Mary

This question has to be answered, as Pope Pius XIII asks – “do you see God?  How do you see God? Where can you find God?” And, in a discussion with his confidante, Cardinal Caltanisetta (Toni Bertorelli), and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), “If I don’t see my parents, and I don’t have parents to love, how can I see God if I cannot see them.” 

Basically, Lenny has this question to deal with – if his childhood was filled with abandonment and lack of real love (the love of a parent and a child), then how can he see the love of God – again, identical to the love of a parent to a child.  That is the main question being asked.  Again, how can a pope lead and love his congregation if he doesn’t know what true, unaffiliated love is?

I would suggest that “The Young Pope” be given the time it needs to develop.  No drama such as this has ever been produced to my knowlege.  It is a grand venture that deals with a “what if” scenario – what if a pope who is only 47 years old, really doesn’t know God, and has extremely awkward personal relationships, becomes a pope. Too many extremes exist to explore in this short piece.  For example, the arrogant Cardinal Voiello who attempts to bring the papacy down by tempting a young, beautiful follower of the Pontiff to attempt to seduce him, actually shows an extremely compassionate side when he is shown throughout the episodes revealing his secrets to a severely handicapped young man who he has taken under his wing.  After long days, politicking at the Vatican, he is seen often taken comfort in engaging the young extremely handicapped man, confessing to him his sins.  He tells the handicapped man:  "I have sinned, and you are the only one I can talk to because of your predicament, you are the only one in this world who has not sinned."

One final theme is Pope Pius XIII hatred toward homosexuals in the priesthood.  The head of the priesthood at the Vatican (Cardinal Mario Assente - Maurizio Lombardi), himself an avowed homosexual, is fired from his post, and the new pope is on a mission to not only fire but destroy the American Cardinal in charge of the priesthood - one of Lenny's failings - lumping homosexuality together with child abuse. This is one of the themes that is developed to show Lenny, Pius XIII at odds with himself. He knows what he wants to do, he knows what he has to do, it's just that he doesn't know how to do it.

Some reviewers have linked the rise of Pius XIII with the rise of Donald Trump. Both leaders have lofty agendas.  Whether they can fulfill their promises is the rub.  It will be an interesting ride to see if both succeed. 

My suggestion is to watch the drama carefully, turn on the closed-captioning so you can read, hear, and digest every word, every sentence, every utterance.

And, if you decide that “The Young Pope” is not for you, at least enjoy the extraordinary musical track that accompanies it, particularly the constant reference to Italian singer Nada singing her hit "Senza Un Perche Nada" (Translated: Without a Reason"). This becomes Pius XIII special song.  

Here is the English translation: 
She never speaks
She never ever says anything
She needs love
And she thinks the world isn't just that
That there is nothing better
Than staying still in the mirror
Which is how things should be
When you feel down
And the whole life
Goes on endlessly without a reason
And everything comes from nothing
And nothing remains without you
She never speaks
She never ever says a thing
It's not strange if she asks for forgiveness
And she did nothing
There is nothing better than being silent
And she hopes for the best
For a light summer that hasn't come yet
And the whole life
Goes on endlessly
Without a reason
And everything comes from nothing
Nothing remains without you
And the whole life goes on endlessly
Without a reason
And everything comes from nothing and nothing remains without you
She never speaks
She never ever says anything