The great Catholic writer Gilbert Keith Chesterton once said, “It is the test of a good religion whether you can joke about it.”
I wonder what Old Chesterton would think of the latest effort from HBO, "The Young Pope," a show that, judging by its first few episodes, is neither funny nor a test of anything but the viewer’s patience.
The set-up of Oscar-winning Paolo Sorrentino’s visually compelling story is simple: Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo, the American Archbishop of New York who has recently become the youngest pope in the storied history of the Catholic Church. How exactly Lenny became Pope Pius XIII when the papal conclave convened is hinted at, but mystery surrounds the new Bishop of Rome at every level of his ascendancy — a mystery that extends to his personality. What is quickly revealed is that this pope plays by his own rules (and that those rules are going to shake the Church, and world, to its foundations).
The authoritarian Pope Pius has his many detractors, including the conniving Cardinal Angelo Voiello, but even those closest to him — most notably, the horribly cast Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) who took young Lenny in when he was abandoned by his parents as a child four decades earlier — aren’t too chummy with the Pontiff either.
Although written and filmed before the recent ascendancy of another long-shot American candidate, "Young Pope" is rife with parallels to what many of Donald Trump’s detractors (and even some of his supporters) believe he will do with such supreme power. You can almost hear the conscious grinning and head nodding that must go on in the living rooms of Bernie and Hillary voters while watching this controversial series.
Pope Pius XIII doesn’t eat breakfast. He castigates any subordinates who happen to forget that he is the pope and they are not. He’s secretive, judgmental, and truly believes that no common rules of decency and order apply to him. He humiliates a Cardinal that is found to be a homosexual, and he commands the resident priest in the Vatican’s chapel to dish the dirt on all who come to confess their private sins.
In one of the more telling scenes, Pope Pius XIII gives a confession of his own to this same beleaguered priest — he does not believe in God.
In case you weren’t picking up what I’ve been throwing down, "The Young Pope" is not a love letter to organized religion in general, or the Catholic Church in particular. Rather, it is a masterfully constructed exercise in cynicism, made by an undeniably talented visual storyteller. The problem is that in place of a thoughtful exploration of the challenges that faith in a Higher Power presents in our modern age, "Young Pope" gives us blatant contempt.
Positing the notion that there is corruption at every level of organized religion (or government) is not original. Neither is exclusively going after the Christian faith tradition when there are other, more pressing and dangerous, religiously-driven problems that the civilized world has been facing for the past two decades (ahem, Muslim extremism).
For those who thought the jabs that Monty Python movies used to take at religion were distasteful, at least we got to laugh while indulging in someone else’s irreverence. With the bleak and depressing "Young Pope," all we get is yet another glimpse of Hollywood’s misunderstanding of faith.
This article first appeared on Acculturated.com.
R.J. is a writer based in Los Angeles. To read more of his reports — Click Here Now.
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