REACTION: HBO’s The Young Pope

young-popeI have now seen two episodes of the new HBO (etc.) series The Young Pope. It has already run across the Pond.

It is visually rich, cynical, creepy, weird, unpredictable, sacrilegious and clever.

Try to get your head around Fellini’s Roma morphed by Quentin Tarantino (who belongs in jail) with House of Cards.

The production values are high. There is some gratuitous nudity and a bit of sex.  Flashbacks are important.  I think there are lots of little symbols and cues.  For example, during a flashback you see the main character as a boy, who has as a label on his jeans an American flag superimposed by the letters UFO: he’s an known object from America, flying by the seat of his pants, as it were.

I suspect that part of the underlying motives for making the show is to mock the Church.  The major motive, however, was probably the desire to make a surreal show with intrigue against a truly gorgeous backdrop.

I wonder also if this is a bit of a reaction to Pope Francis. It is both a “thank God for Pope Francis” and a “we need less of Pope Francis” show.  There is tension of modern and traditional.  The episodes seem to say, “Thank God we don’t have anything like this guy” and, at the same time, “Maybe we could use a little more of this guy”.

The filming locations were well chosen and they have enough elements to recall the real thing. Although for someone who lived in Rome as long as I did and worked in the Vatican, it is a little distracting to see people occasionally going the wrong way or to see impossible things. Also, there are moments when locations are nearly perfectly reproduced. Amazing.

Frankly, I share some of the goals of this weird fictional Pope. On this blog I have often mentioned that once We are elected Pope we will disappear into the Apostolic Palace for lengths of time so long that people shall wonder if We are still alive. The idea is that the Church has given in to the world too much. It is time to recover, Church-wide, a sense of mystery and that “the world” is still one of the three perpetual enemies which we all battle. I cheered the creepy fictional Pope’s decision to recover the tiara that Paul VI sold and which is now in Washington DC. I also very much like the fact that he sacked the Prefect for Clergy for being homosexual and said that he it is unacceptable that a homosexual be in charge of training priests. Hurray! And he sacked the Secretary of State with real style.

There are some great one liners. It helps to be well-read to follow it. Also, since it was made by Italians, they capture well the ecclesio-babble that only Italians can accomplish.

There are memorable speeches, such as when he met the cook for the first time, changed the Vatican’s marketing policy and, of course his first speech to the world from the balcony of San Pietro. That speech, which the first two episodes built up to, was marvelously monstrous, gloriously brutal, falsely true and, truly, false.  It is on YouTube.   Don’t watch it if you don’t want spoilers.  I don’t like spoilers so I won’t post it or the link.

The next episode will be the moment when I decide whether I will continue to watch it or not.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. Huber says:

    We need another warrior pope willing to fight and lead the Church to God…

    A pope that would make the world’s ears pop by the sudden pressure change from filling the theological and spiritual vacuum that is currently the Vatican…

  2. Pingback: HBO’s The Young Pope . Fr. Z’s take | Trump:The American Years

  3. Caesar says:

    I wonder if this didn’t take a little inspiration from Baron Corvo’s novel Hadrian the Seventh, where a previously obscure Englishman is chosen to succeed Leo XIII, upending the curia and completely changing Church and world affairs.

  4. Fr. Vincent Fitzpatrick says:

    Pius XII smoked. There have been worse Popes.

  5. Robbie says:

    I watched both episodes of the “Young Pope” and am interested to see how the series continues. Long before the series began, I watched on YouTube the new pope’s address to the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel. Not surprisingly, I found myself cheering his speech. Those who continue to watch the series will soon find out what I’m referencing.

    That said, I think the motives of the show go beyond simply embarrassing the Church. Given the excesses the show projects about the fictional Pius XIII, I feel its goal is as much to discredit traditional Catholicism and anyone who might chose the papal name Pius XIII in the future. As has long been the case, a caricature can overtake reality. So if for instance a Cardinal was elected pope and chose the name Pius XIII, many in the press will quickly reference Jude Law’s representation as suggestive of what is to come.

    That said, I doubt anyone who takes the name Pius XIII will be all that concerned with the press.

  6. acardnal says:

    I, too, am not sure what to make of this series nor am I sure I will continue watching it. It’s weird. I can’t make up my mind if Pope Pius XIII, (Jude Law) aka Lenny Belardo, is a good guy or a bad guy. You characterized it very well, Fr. Z, when you said: “It is visually rich, cynical, creepy, weird, unpredictable, sacrilegious and clever.”

    Curiously, the show also stars James Cromwell who portrayed Pope Pius XII in another eponymous docudrama movie but in this show is a Cardinal! And the show also stars Diane Keaton who plays a nun who raised Pius XIII in an orphanage and now resides with him in the Papal palace.

  7. Charles E Flynn says:

    I was impressed by the originality of the line spoken by the young pope when he made his confession. It made me wonder just what inspired the script writer:

    “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything. “

  8. JonathanTX says:

    Keep going, it gets better. There’s only 10 episodes total anyway.

  9. Andrew D says:

    Please don’t watch it and don’t promote it by mentioning it here. HBO does not have the Church’s best interests at heart – the exact opposite is true. Anything they and the rest of the mainstream media (cable and otherwise) produce is designed to mock and marginalize our Holy Mother Church. The more people that watch, the more chatter on the net, the more the metrics people at HBO and the Neilson ratings systems justify their hitman content a success. Ignore this garbage, pray for the destruction of our country’s pornographic culture and conversion home to the Catholic Church and ALL OF HER TEACHINGS through the Immaculate Heart of Mary.

  10. Stephanus83 says:

    Father, I’m looking forward to your follow up after the next episode. I’ve been waiting for some Catholic reviews to come out before I decide to watch or not. So far, your review seems positive. I’ll wait until your follow up for sure.

  11. SaintJude6 says:

    Have to say I am quite disappointed that you are watching HBO trash.

  12. Grant M says:

    I saw an ad for this program entitled Pius XIII, and thought “That’s interesting. They’ve made a series about Lucian Pulvermacher, and how an eccentric priest, disturbed by post-conciliar turmoil, opts for a cure worse than the disease. Could be fun to watch.”

    Actually my satellite package doesn’t include the channel hosting this series, and I don’t feel like paying extra just to see it. So I’ll stick to the YouTube clips.

    Probably no gratuitous nudity in the Indonesian version- just gratuitous blurriness.

  13. Louis Tully says:

    “It’s time for my snack.”

    Everything else aside, that moment cracked me up.

  14. kurtmasur says:

    I too have only seen just the first two episodes and I agree that certaim inaccuracies can be distracting, such as calling the speech from St. Peter’s balcony a “homily”, although elsewhere it is referred to as an “address”.

    Considering the current climate of fear at the Vatican under a grumpy and vindictive Pope Francis, I feel that this series helps to put things into perspective of what’s going on at Sancta Marta, and the Vatican in general regarding rivalries, politics, etc.

  15. Great review Father, I’m 3 episodes in. It’s entertaining, and I think faithful Catholic’s will enjoy the inside jokes.
    Pax Christi
    From Vancouver

  16. Peter in Canberra says:

    … so few hours …

  17. Papabile says:

    Stato is absolutely hilarious and his descripton of power is much like what happens in politics, though not in such a transactional way (e.g. Mons. Who has alcohol problem).

  18. Unwilling says:

    It takes learning, prudence, and fortitude to escape the harms (or pain) from exposure to such contivances. Thank you for undertaking the perilous task for us. It is now without regret on my Index prohibitorum.

  19. padredana says:

    Does everyone who works in Rome really smoke that much?

  20. I was very interested to read your thought Father, lots of chatter on the interwebs and you pretty much summed up what I think the many have said. I will be interested to see if you continue with it.

  21. jazzclass says:

    I think that it gives an interesting view of the goals and state of The Church. We’re very bipolar, with one side so traditional, another very liberal, another side very political, and yet another ignorant of it all.

  22. Gus Barbarigo says:

    Fr. Z, please let us know if this show gets your “imprimatur”. Also, if you would pardon an un-asked-for suggestion, it would be great if you would (please) compile a list of Fr. Z-approved TV/web shows now on DVD. Thanks for keeping us aware of pop culture.

  23. Eliane says:

    An intriguing coincidence is found in the script of The Young Pope at approximately 15 minutes into Part 2, where the pope informs the Vatican PR woman that the most successful artists, such Sallinger in fiction and Kubrik in movie-making, remain invisible enigmas. For an artist example the PR woman suggests that the greatest of the day is Marina Abramovi? – she of “Pizzagate” fame for sharing “food,” “art” and whatever else with the Podesta brothers in a social group that reaches out to include Hillary Clinton herself.

    Now, given that The Young Pope premiered last October in Italy, it has to have been filmed many months before alt-news broke the Pizzagate story, which elevated Abramovic from a somewhat well known weird performance artist to a now world famous figure who might even be a lynchpin that could take down the U.S. government.

    So what delicious (no pun on Abramovic’s “cooking” intended) irony of Abramovic’s name coming up in the pope’s justification for his insistence upon remaining invisible. If the writers had only known, at the time of writing, the full significance of that little piece of dialogue….

  24. Really loved the show. I was basically cheering for him as the series went on and I am looking forward to the second season.

  25. I (and a number of my young illiberal catholic friends) have seen the season in its entirety. I have no idea what HBO was thinking when they went ahead with this but I’m so glad they did.
    NB (spoiler free)
    – anyone who’s read FR Rolfe’s Hadrian VII will notice a number of similarities though both young popes are decidedly different characters.
    – this season takes the Church seriously and will dismay the likes of Fr. James Martin and other liberal squishes. I have no idea what S02 will bring though, so I’m prepared for a volte-face.
    – Sorrentino has an odd record as a filmmaker: The Great Beauty is magnificent (see Thomas Aquinas College grad Matthew Lickona’s 5 star review ) Yet his latest, Youth is a boring, uninspired mess. The Young Pope Season 1 is a return to form.
    – trads will note the show pays more attention to a e s t h e t i c s than to crusty old encyclicals or liturgy. However, note that all Masses, whether said by heroes or villains, are ad orientum.
    – There is some very brief regrettable nudity/sex in maybe 4 of the 10 episodes. These scenes serve to demonstrate the virtue of certain characters in contrast to the sin and corruption that surrounds them. There is a wonderful conversation at one point about how sex is unnecessary to man’s fulfillment.
    – Some of the theology and doctrine that is touched on is treated haphazardly but in the long run there’s nothing too scandalous there.
    – Yes, the young pope is not a perfect character; he has a flaw or two, maybe even an achilles heel; but the number of times I chuckled at him confounding progressives or just jumped out of my seat in joy as he cleaned up corruption make this show a must watch.

  26. The Egyptian says:

    only watched YouTube clips so far, really liked his speech to the cardinals, but then all of a sudden Jude Law does that thing with his tongue and eyes and shivers run up my spine, is he good or satanic.
    Particularly enjoyed the scene where he asks the pedophile cardinal to select where in the USA he wishes to retire and the cardinal points to San Fransisco on the huge lit globe. Pious exclaims Barrow Alaska, good choice

  27. sml says:

    I have been a daily viewer of this blog for years. I knew I could come and here the truth about what is going on in the church and society.
    Shame on you Fr. Z for posting, and therefore condoning this filthy show.
    As you tell us – Go To Confession.

    [I guess that’s a “No” vote, then.]

  28. Geoffrey says:

    I watched several episodes. It left me rather confused. I wasn’t sure what the overall point of the series is supposed to be. Is the Pope a modern Borgia? A modern saint? Can’t tell…

    [Interesting observation. I refer you to the possibility I raised in the top entry. Time will tell. I’ve seen only two.]

  29. Dan says:

    I am with the no vote, especially as a hear a future episode will depict an orgy scene between a cardinal, another man, and a very naked woman. ( I have never been to the Vatican so I am not sure if that is a realistic depiction of what goes on there or not)
    As we are continually being asked to GO TO CONFESSION, I believe it is equally important to avoid the near occasion of sin. If a positive review of this show endangers souls by possibly leading them to lustful thoughts over what can only be described as a pornographic scene(and as I understand this will far from be the only such scene) then it is worth me trying to discourage the watching of the show to whatever extent I can. Shows like this, it is my belief, deceive us into compromising our faith and morals by watching scenes we would never otherwise seek out just to follow a good storyline.

  30. CradleRevert says:

    The show intrigued me when I first heard about it, but given that it airs on HBO, I don’t have the slightest desire to actually watch it. Every show on HBO is basically soft pornography with a large budget, and I’ve heard that this show is no exception.

  31. un-ionized says:

    Dan, that’s why I gave up TV completely, I frequently got a sense that Jesus was sitting next to me and getting ready to push the popcorn bowl in front of my face so I wouldn’t see and turning off my hearing aids. At first I missed the weather radar but my iPad solves that with a hotspot. Now I can hear myself think (and pray!).

  32. Grant M says:

    That would be one advantage of viewing the series in Indonesia then: the orgy and the nudity will certainly be replaced by jump cuts and blurriness.

  33. Grant M says:

    OK. I am transfixed by a clip on YouTube when the Pius enters the Sistine Chapel: Sedia Gestatoria, Flabelli, Triple Tiara, the works…But I have no context for it, not having seen the series.

    If this was a video made Protestant fundamentalists, it would mean “Behold the triple tyrant, the man of sin, sitting in God’s temple, and making himself a god.” If it was a trad video, it would mean “See what we have lost through our ecumanical efforts to appease Protestants.” But what does it mean in the context of this series? I’m intrigued.

  34. Geoffrey says:

    “I am with the no vote, especially as a hear a future episode will depict an orgy scene between a cardinal, another man, and a very naked woman.”

    That was a rather unfortunate and over-the-top scene, though what happened later proved that sin has its consequences.

  35. un-ionized says:

    Grant, blurriness is your friend!

  36. tradition4all says:

    “Anything they and the rest of the mainstream media (cable and otherwise) produce is designed to mock and marginalize our Holy Mother Church.”

    I would like to counter this. As Catholic apologist Vin Lewis has pointed out, the so-called entertainment industry actually has a love-hate relationship with the Catholic Church. In any movie or TV show where a serious character seeks God, he does so in a Catholic Church. How many cop shows have one or more scenes per season where a character goes to Confession, or prays in a very traditionally decorated, dimly lit church with votive candles and crucifixes and statues? The recent Hollywood movie “Hail, Caesar” seems to be favorable to Catholicism, despite some scenes that seem to suggest to the contrary, and which don’t really fit in with the rest of the movie.

    When artists, including Hollywood directors, need to portray a morally serious character, they make him Catholic. When they need to evoke the transcendental and the sublime, they set the scene in a Catholic church. When Hollywood directors decide to portray evil *as* evil, they do so using tropes borrowed from Christian iconography and tradition. Even people who might hate the Gospel feel compelled (as the Hollywood movie “The Exorcist” says, “The power of Christ compels you!”) to concede the aesthetic superiority of the Catholic Faith.

    And, from what I’ve seen in YouTube scenes, the writers of this show might not be traditionalists, but it would be hard to write the character of the “Young Pope” if you didn’t have *some* fascination for or attraction to traditional Catholicism. Some of the character’s most reactionary lines are written and delivered with obvious glee. (Sort of like the movie “Doubt.” For all I know, the people who made that movie intended it to attack the Church. Yet anyone who watches sympathizes with the very conservative nun and sees right through the evil liberal pedophile priest.)

    Is it (mainstream media depiction of Catholicism) all good? Absolutely not. Is it admixed with error? Sure. Is it worth viewing by serious Catholics? Maybe not. But to just dismiss all Hollywood depictions of Catholicism as ill-willed is false and doesn’t do justice to Catholicism. One of the proofs of our Faith is that the secularists of Hollywood, when they “get serious,” get Catholic.

  37. Charles E Flynn says:

    I recall the wise words of an apparently elderly Italian priest of the Oblates of the Virgin Mary, who staffed the confessional at the St. Francis Chapel in the Prudential Center, Boston, some years ago, during the summer:

    “The Catholic Church teaches authoritatively, has always taught authoritatively, and always will teach authoritatively, that the visual arts (dramatic pause) are a grey area.”

    From :

    This is not to say that that The Mission couldn’t possibly present anyone with an occasion of sin. Certain people may be more vulnerable on this point than others — for example, adolescent boys, who can be so combustible that they might find prurient interest even in National Geographic, or in the Renaissance wing of an art museum. But for most viewers, the nudity in The Mission shouldn’t present any particular moral obstacle to viewing the film.

  38. Dan says:

    @Geoffrey “That was a rather unfortunate and over-the-top scene, though what happened later proved that sin has its consequences.

    Herein lies the deception. The characters themselves are fictional, a fictional character cannot sin, and when there are fictional consequences they do not matter. What we shouldn’t lose sight of is that there are men and women more frequently, real people with real souls, who for whatever reason; money, fame, acceptance? Place themselves into objectively sinful, objectively sexual situations. What of the soul of the young women who was compelled to remove her clothing and place herself into that very real sexual situation for the entertainment of many thousands. It might not have been as real as was fictionally depicted but was none-the-less very real to her, the actor.
    As Charles E Flynn points out the scene will at the very least become a moral obstacle for many teenage men, and a poor example for many young women. Maybe at this point the many Priests that read and post here can call to mind the confessions they have heard of young many (and not so young men) then ask yourself if this material presents a real risk to souls?
    Sexual situations in cinema are a far cry from violence, or other fictional situations, when someone is shot in the head in a movie chances are the actor was not asked to actually be shot in the head. An actor in a sexual situation is actually asked to place themselves into that situation on some level, and if you were to google in many films the situation is VERY real.
    The people being asked to do this, with nothing really added to the story line by making it so graphic, we can’t forget are actual people. A drawing is not an actual person, an artist can paint anything without actually asking a person to put their soul at risk to portray it. A story in a book, or even in a script is not dangerous to anyone unless it tempts the reader it doesn’t force anyone into sin. Film and TV are very different.
    I find the debate in this post very interesting, I recall some comments on the movie Silence, how we should not watch the film because it seems to justify the compromises made by Fr. Rodrigues in his head even to the point of suggesting Christ would be OK with apostasy in certain situations. Yet, what do we compromise and how do we justify this film? Because it is more entertaining or because the decisions are better concealed?

  39. Pez says:

    I just finished watching all 10 episodes. I could have done without the gratuitous nudity and sex scenes. There was one scene in particular where my reaction was, “Seriously? Could you not have conveyed the meaning of that scene without it?” Putting that aside, I really did enjoy watching this series, and I’ll probably watch it again. I found myself rooting for Pope Pius XIII. I think I’m going to change my morning breakfast to a Cherry Coke Zero in his honor! :-)

    I didn’t see TYP as a hit piece on the Church at all. It would have been very easy for the director, Paolo Sorrentino, to have painted a caricature of the Church where the pope and the cardinals are just a bunch of power hungry hypocrites who don’t even believe what they say they believe, but he didn’t do that. Instead, Sorrentino does a very good job portraying the jumbled mess of contradictions that are within each character. Take for example the character of Cardinal Angelo Voiello, the cardinal secretary of state. Another theme I noticed throughout the series is that sin has consequences.

    This series also introduced me to a singer and song I had never heard before – Senza Un Perché by Nada. That song definitely sticks in your head. I have it on my mp3 player now.

  40. acerun87 says:

    Fr. Z – have you given your final verdict on watching “The Young Pope”? – Thanks!

    [Sorry, I have some catching up to do. Maybe today.]

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