Paolo Sorrentino's The Young Pope, now concluded on HBO, has been greenlighted ("greenlit"?) for a second season. I'm happy about the news and will look forward to the new series, although I must admit the show continues to confound me -- simply put, I have no idea what the program means and, indeed, many episodes remain enigmas to me. Even on a simplest level, aspects of the show are baffling -- for instance, why are there two different title sequences and are they emblematic for the content of the episode to follow. An austere sequence with white titles on black accompanied the first few shows. Apparently, this wasn't considered sufficiently eye-catching -- often the only thing good about HBO mini-series are their surreal and Gothic title shots -- and, so, about episode four (and intermittently thereafter) we were treated to a slow-motion tracking shot of Jude Law in papal regalia walking past famous religious images -- an animated star precedes him wreaking Monty Python style havoc within the frame of the pictures in the gallery; while a strangulated version of Dylan's All Along the Watchtower plays (just the ominous and monumental descending bass line), the young pope winks at us and, then, the comet knocks over a representation of the old pope, a generic bloke in his garb holding a big cross like a lance. Sorrentino's visual sense is astounding -- the old pope is shaped vaguely like a bowling pin and, when the comet knocks him down, he lolls on the floor exactly like a pin hit by a bowler's ball: it's a Strike! It's strange that there are two opening sequences for the show and this strange confusion exists even on the level of the various anecdotes with which the show retails us -- the show is not so much episodic as anecdotal: we get snippets of stories usually with a resolution that confounds our attempt to make meaning of them. An example is the tale of the bedridden fat woman. An immensely fat woman requires surgery. A priest sent to New York to ferret out a pedophiliac bishop, the saintly Guiterrez, attends at the woman's bedside -- it's not clear how he knows her or why they are together at all. The woman is too fat to be taken down the stairs at her grim apartment. The plan is knock out part of the wall and lower her by crane, bed and all, to the street. The woman is afraid of heights but, also, intensely ashamed. She needs the surgery to save her life, but doesn't want to endure the humiliation of being removed from her house through the enlarged cavity of the knocked-out wall around her window. Guiterrez says that he will be with her as a comforter. On the day that she is to be moved, we see the wall broken into a big round opening -- again Sorrentino's visual gifts are almost excessive: the opening in the wall is covered by a radiant white sheet that ripples like a banner of surrender in the wind. The woman's bed is secured to the crane and pushed out over the void. As she emerges into the open air, dangling on the crane, she looks down and sees Guiterrez in the crowd below her. He signals to her. She, then, demands that the bed be returned to her room and does not leave the apartment. In the show's final episode, Sorrentino makes a spasmodic attempt to unite all the various subplots in the most simple (some might say "lame") way imaginable -- as the Pope delivers a homily in Venice (itself a masterpiece of poetic obfuscation), we see the characters that we have met throughout the ten episodes, all of them listening to the Pope's words or watching him on TV. There is a brief glimpse of the fat lady in her bed with the wall still wrenched open and the sheet over the opening still picturesquely waving in the wind. What in the world is this supposed to mean? The fat woman's rejection of surgery undoubtedly will have fatal consequences. Why wasn't Guiterrez with her bedside? Why does she sprawl in her bed with a look of beatific joy? How did the rejection of her only hope for survival make her so happy. Here is the key to Sorrentino's The Young Pope -- the viewer is presented with a series of radiant mysteries, almost Zen-like koans; it is up to us to make sense of these things.
Why does this work as a strategy in The Young Pope? I think it is because the show's subject is fundamentally imponderable. The young Pope imagines himself to be God's instrument on earth while simultaneously doubting God's very existence -- he wavers between dogmatism and skepticism; indeed, the program demonstrates convincingly one aspect of faith -- the more doubtful you are, the more vehemently you proclaim your belief. And, assuming God's existence, a questionable assumption on all levels, divining God's will is even more difficult. For this reason, the debates on ethics and social issues that occupy much of the program's time can not be readily resolved -- indeed, such debates simply lead to more questions. The show's opacity, it's inscrutability is intrinsic to its metaphysics. In some of His (or Her) aspects, God is wholly Other and, therefore, some of the weird, self-contradictory actions of the protagonist (and other characters) mirror this characteristic -- much of what the young Pope does remains inexplicable. One short sequence must stand for dozens -- why does the young Pope sadistically torment the schoolchildren that have come to the Vatican for a tour of the museums? He cruelly tells them that the rainstorm outside is Jesus weeping for their sins -- obviously, this alludes to a cruelty inflicted on him as a child, but why does he perpetuate this cycle of violence, inducing tears in the children. (The pope says that he was "just teasing", a casual remark that rhymes with his strange, smug wink at the audience in the opening sequence.) At every juncture, the work of Sorrentino's camera, his editing, framing, and narrative is to confound expectations and defeat our predictions -- Voiello who seemed to be the paradigmatic voice of institutional (as opposed to charismatic) Catholicism has been tamed and seems to accept the Pope as a saint. Characters radically reverse their positions -- they seems different from week to week. At one point, we see the Pope in the throes of some kind of ecstasy -- he rhythmically turns is beautiful head and shoulders one direction and, then, the other. What are we seeing? The camera approaches to show us that the Pope is using a bow-flex machine to exercise. Often, we see an event or something leading to an event before the narrative has prepared us for the image. For instance, a shot cuts away from the Vatican to show a helicopter lifting a storage container from a ship. Only a half-hour later, do we learn that this storage container carries the Pope's metal-helmeted tiara or his kangaroo. A young woman is making love -- who is she? Who is the man? (Later, we discover that the woman is an infertile wife to a Swiss Guard, the beneficiary of one of the Pope's miracles.) Repeatedly, we see a strange painting of a bearded man offer a child his own (female) breast to suckle. Who is this and what does it mean? The structure of the show is to dramatically question what human beings can reliably know: people aren't worthy of the divine -- Sorrentino stages his hushed tableaux in vast and elaborate architectural spaces, endless colonnades, plush and vacant chambers, huge places where his actors are dwarfed by the facades and artworks around them. The effect is like Antonioni's insistence that architecture is, ultimately, destiny. The Vatican's frescos and corridors shape the characters to its own immemorial and mysterious purposes.
The heart of this vast enterprise seems to be banal -- Lenny Belardo's search for his missing parents. But this banal theme is symbolic. In a crucial way, religion is the search for an authority that validates human beings and guides their striving for a good life. Religion has a paternal aspect -- the Pope is the Holy Father. Thus, the search for the father is integral to the broader themes that the show raises. Everyone is looking for their father, whether on earth or in heaven. At the climax of the last episode, the young Pope delivers an incomprehensible homily to a huge crowd in Venice -- using a spyglass he scans the thousands gathered in the Piazza San Marco looking for his parents. Of course, he seems to see them -- to look for the father is to find him, I suppose, in one way or the other (either as a real man or a spirit in the sky or a philosophical dogma). As the earthly father with Lenny's mother turns away from the young Pope, Lenny collapses, probably the victim of a heart attack. Looking upward, he sees the clouds transfigured into a giant, vaporous image of Jesus. The show has been renewed for next season -- so, to be continued ---