Friday, February 17, 2017


The photo depicts Jude Law's Pope Pius XIII in a nutshell--a Pope who smokes even though it's banned in the Vatican (by His Holiness, if I recall correctly); who is vehemently opposed to homosexual priests even though he ultimately elevates one to be his overseer; who wants to remain unseen by the masses to preserve the mystery of the Church, yet wears what might be called runway Vatican chic (glowing white robes and hats, a white cashmere-looking running suit, red loafers) and orders a triple tiara for himself:

The Pope's given name, Lenny Belardo, also reflects this contrast or duality.  His first name recalls Lennie Small of Steinbeck's Of Mice and Men, a bear of a man yet innocent and intellectually/developmentally handicapped.  "Belardo" is from the Old High German, meaning strong and powerful as a bear. Pius XIII certainly presents himself initially as a powerful entity--a Trump-like tyrant who demands you do things his way or get the highway.  Yet Lenny is psychologically and developmentally handicapped by his trauma of abandonment, having been orphaned by hippie parents who left him to the care of a Catholic orphanage, where Lenny's surrogate "Ma" was Sister Mary, played by Diane Keaton, below, who wears a traditional habit during the day (tinted glasses and high-button collared in that Keaton-esque style, of course), but who lets her hair down and, well, expresses herself at night.

While the abandonment theme may come off as simplistic, as a psychotherapist, I can tell you that Lenny's fixation on why his parents gave him up (read: rejected him) is anything but. His self-worth is deeply wounded under a defensive armor of narcissistic grandiosity. (Look no further than Trump's narcissism: it is so very sad to witness how desperately this POTUS needs mirroring and validation of his acceptance--hence his incessant assertions of the "tremendous" numbers of those who supported him and his "yuge" ratings.)

A friend and fellow watcher of this show asked, Is Lenny a tyrant or is he a saint?  Sister Mary believes the latter, but I'd say
he's neither and both.  Lenny's an uncanny reader of those around him--for example, he knows that Guttierez (Javier Cámara, right) is essentially trustworthy and that the tonic for his anxiety and fear of life outside the Vatican walls is for him to be sent to New York on a mission, even though it initially seems like a penance. (Guttierez does, succeeds, and comes back a changed man.)  Lenny's impatient, dictatorial, dismissive.  Yet his prayers for a sterile couple result in a baby (whom the Pope literally drops in one scene--oops!--I guess he isn't completely infallible), and his prayers for divine intervention with regard to a false saintly nun end with her getting...well, let's just say some unholy water.

Lenny's mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cronwell) becomes his rival and tormentor, but also ultimately guides his student from innocence to experience, from narcissism to empathy:

Lenny:  "Abortion has nothing to do with life."

Spencer:  "Who gives a damn about life?  Life is not some stupid centerpiece of the side table of nothingness.  Life is meant to be used, and to be used well.  To love and be loved. And let me remind you what St. Alphonsus said about abortion.  In an abortion, everyone is guilty, except for the woman."

Warning:  mild spoiler ahead!

By the end of this series (or season, hopefully), Lenny has softened, evolved:  he accepts Guittierez' sexuality; he shows himself to the people of Venice (okay, even if for the self-serving hope that his biological parents may show up).  But the strain of this transformation and acceptance on the the Pope's psyche makes him faint (one hopes not worse).

This HBO limited series has a 75% fresh critics' rating on Rotten Tomatoes--I'm shocked it wasn't higher.  Perhaps it has to do with the fact that people are essentially xenophobic when it comes to what might appear as a Catholic story.  It is, but with a small "c"--in the sense of universal (see references to DT above).  Or perhaps reviewers aren't used to a lead character who is so flagrantly both persona and shadow--who embodies our own dichotomies (we can tolerate superheroes or archenemies more readily--they're the ones who are simplistic).  Ironically, viewers give the series an 82% fresh rating--our unconventional young pope is amassing congregants.

Writer-director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) extends the duality to every aspect of his series.  From The Pope drinking Cherry Coke to the use of contemporary music--the credit sequence diorama with Devlin's (All Along the) Watchtower and Law's wink is absolutely stunning.  (Click here for all the songs in the series.)  

Jude Law is hot as Pius XIII, and so is his publicist Sofia (Cécile De France), whom he lets sit on the papal throne. And how endearing does the Pope's potential nemesis Cardinal Voielllo (Silvio Orlando, below), with his yearning for Sister Mary, become?

This series is like Twin Peaks set in the Vatican.  It's written and directed with jaw-dropping style and verve.  It starts like a gangster movie but defies genre-fication.  So what's not to worship?

Let us pray for a Season 2.

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