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The Young Pope: An Authoritarian With an American Accent

HBO's new show is both of our time and not.

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

When we first meet Lenny Belardo, he’s crawling out from under a heap of babies into a candlelit St. Peter’s Square. It is a dream, of course, and it is meant to be unsettling. But it is also a clue, albeit a heavy-handed one, that Lenny is not like other popes.

There are other clues: He smokes moodily in the Vatican. He likes EDM and Banksy! He only consumes Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, sure evidence of psychopathy. He is an American. And did I mention he’s young? Don’t worry, he’ll remind us. “I am the young pope,” he says haughtily, in case we failed to notice that he is being played by Jude Law, who cannot be old.

But the dream sequence, featured in the first five minutes of The Young Pope’s pilot, also sets up the central questions of the first half of HBO’s newest and strangest acquisition: Is Lenny, formally known as Pius XIII, disturbed or is he touched by God? Is he an institutionalist or a renegade subversive? Is The Young Pope a comedy or a drama? There’s nothing like it on TV at the moment and that is both part of its appeal and part of its trouble.

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino, whose previous efforts include The Great Beauty and Youth, The Young Pope is simultaneously of our time and not. Lenny is fictional and contemporary political references are largely absent, but it is implied that his election stemmed from conservative backlash to his tolerant predecessor. (Pope Francis can testify to the accuracy of this backlash.) He is conservative, we learn quickly; he moves to expel all gay men from the priesthood and informs his terrified household staff that he prefers “formal relationships” that are “as clear as spring water.”

And he just might be an atheist. “I’m saying that I don’t believe in God, Tommaso,” he tells his confessor, thus concluding the pilot.

Lenny’s cardinals don’t know what to make of their American radical. Neither does the show that’s named for him. Sorrentino assigns him a hackneyed backstory: He is the way he is because his libertine parents abandoned him at a Catholic orphanage with Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). He entered the priesthood, he tells his private secretary Gutierrez, “for lack of a better alternative.” He’s hungry to hear of the alcoholic Gutierrez’s visions, and is acutely conscious that he lacks his own Road to Damascus moment. He’s angry at God and everyone else. Yet he clings to the structure of the Catholic Church if not necessarily to faith. Why?

This is Sorrentino’s psychological character study of a fanatic. It can’t be an accident that Lenny, and his conservative mentors Sister Mary and Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), are all Americans. The Young Pope, first released in Italy, at times feels like an outsider’s perspective on American Christianity. If fundamentalism returns to the Vatican, Sorrentino seems to say, it will naturally do so with an American accent.

Because of this and the timing of the show’s premiere, American viewers may be tempted to see the show through the lens provided by our own authoritarian, Donald Trump, even though it was filmed long before Trump secured the Republican nomination. Law even surfaced the comparison in a recent interview, saying Trump’s election makes the show’s premise “less far-fetched.”

But if there are similarities between Trump and Lenny, it’s only because they’re both reactionaries. Reducing Lenny to a Catholic Trump strips his storyline of its most interesting nuances and reduces the show to a flat and unoriginal allegory. Trump is fundamentally a con man. He is racist and sexist, but he has no politics and serves no ideology. Fascists like Richard Spencer try to fold their racism and sexism into an overarching political philosophy; with Trump, prejudice is id on display. Lenny, though a narcissist, believes in the Catholic Church perhaps even more than he believes in God. Trump shattered orthodoxy. Lenny wants to enforce it.

And that’s the real warning of The Young Pope. “I want to start a revolution,” Lenny tells Tommaso, and Sorrentino grasps that revolution is counter-spectacle. Lenny refuses to be photographed for papal merch. He speaks to his flock from the shadows. His bizarre behavior eventually convinces his chief antagonist, the liberal Cardinal Voiello, that he is truly a saint. But Sorrentino understands the limitations of personality cults, too. If you want your ideology to survive you, to become durable, center it around a permanent institution.

“I am more delighted to have declared the truth than to be praised for it,” Augustine wrote in his Confessions, and this Lenny has in common with him. But that’s where the resemblance ends. Lenny’s no match for the Bishop of Hippo. He isn’t interested in intellectual arguments; instead, he thinks he can wall skepticism out and destroy it by dictate. “Everything that was wide open is going to be closed,” he tells his cardinals. “We are cement and cement doesn’t move. ... ‘Only the church possesses the charisma of truth,’ said St. Ignatius of Antioch. And he was right. We have no reason to look out.”

The great weakness of The Young Pope is that Lenny is saddled with so many psychological cracks that the relationship between his fanaticism and his implied atheism becomes muddled. His zeal becomes a belabored metaphor for his own abandonment. “I search everywhere, I pray everywhere. But I don’t see God,” he tells Sister Mary. “Because I don’t see my father. Because I don’t see my mother.” His troubles are grounded in psychological distress rather than theological dilemma, and that makes him a thoroughly prosaic figure. Fundamentalists are as dogmatic as Lenny, certainly, but they are rarely so two-dimensional.

The Young Pope is also disjointed and absurd, its bleakness interspersed with symbolism so bombastic it generates unintentional laughs. But in its stillest moments, it elicits real feeling and is even beautiful. It moves us most in prayer. There’s a recognizable desperation to Lenny’s pleas, such as when he mutters “God’s infinite silence” like a spell. He implores the Virgin Mary to give a child to the devout and barren wife of a papal guard, and tells Tommaso that God, in His rage, has retired to a dingy studio apartment. He looks for God in silence, in the fractured souls around him, in a prostitute’s late-night wisdom. And he sees Him maybe once, in the unexpected jump of the kangaroo he released into the Vatican gardens.

Any reluctant atheist knows what it is to look for these signs, to wonder what is coincidence and what is long-awaited evidence that God hears and understands. But life is much too short and much too brutal to waste on signs. Atheists make their peace with silence. Lenny cannot. And so The Young Pope isn’t like The Borgias and it’s not a Catholic House of Cards. It is a tragedy.

“How do you overcome fear?” Gutierrez once asks him. “By giving in to the unfathomable and complex architecture God has designed for us,” Lenny replies. Sorrentino has created a complex architecture, but it is much too easy to fathom.