“Who are you Lenny?”
“I am a contradiction. I’m God: one in three and three in one. Like Mary, virgin and mother. Like man, good and evil.”
Lenny Belardo – or rather, Jude Law in the role of the pope created by the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino – makes his entrance to the strains of All along the Watchtower by Bob Dylan in Devlin’s version. Slow and yet determined, he walks followed by a comet that turns into a meteorite and tears down Cattelan’s statue of Pope Wojtyla, symbolically replacing an old pope with a new one. The background, made up of significant paintings depicting the history of Christianity, creates a play of light that emphasizes the dichotomy between the two sides of Lenny’s face, one well-lighted while the other stays in darkness. This double vision of Pope Pius XIII reflects his human nature, both holy and sinful. Unexpectedly young and charming, he manifests his mysteries and contradictions right in the most mysterious and contradictory place: the Vatican.
At first believed to be revolutionary, he soon reveals to have a deeply conservative spirit – also recalled by the bond his formal name creates with Pope Pius XI. As a matter of fact, his first speech, where he opens to masturbation, homosexuality, abortion and euthanasia, turns out to be just the fragment of one of his dreams. In his very first homily, which he stages personally in a way that calculatedly hides his face from sight, directly accuses the faithful of having forgotten God: “God isn’t interested in us until we become interested in Him, in Him exclusively. […] There’s no room for anything else.” The Pope seems to be willing to reaffirm the spiritual values of religion. His captivating, somehow desirable, vision of religion consists in refraining from exhibitionism. In an impressive talk he administers to the head of Vatican marketing and communication, refusing to take part in a merchandising campaign shoot, Lenny Belardo declares he wants to elevate the Church by generating a “hyperbole in reverse”. Like Salinger for literature and Banksy for art, the Pope will become invisible and unreachable as a rock star in order to spark curiosity among the world’s communities.
These beliefs also make him reluctant to change and to be anything but charitable in terms of his relationships with others. Cold, distant, unpredictable, arrogant and never willing to compromise, His Holiness terrifies whoever he comes across: from Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello – who sees his power in jeopardy – to cardinals, servants and even Italy’s Prime Minister. There’s only one exception: the nun that really knows Lenny, Sister Mary – an amazing Diane Keaton who sleeps in a t-shirt that says: “I’m a virgin – but this is an old shirt”.
However, the young pope drinks Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, smokes cigarettes – a detail Sorrentino gleaned from Pope Ratzinger – often compares his own beauty to Jesus Christ’s, dresses to the music of I’m sexy and I know it and goes to confession to say he doesn’t believe in God, and then that his confession is merely a joke. Not to mention the fact that he is able to work miracles – as, for example, when he firmly demands God to help Esther, a sterile woman, to get pregnant. Without any doubt, he is an unconventional institutional figure: a so-called living oxymoron. Saintly and diabolical at the same time, he is in fact simply human. It is in his earthly dimension that his contradictions emerge.
The theme that runs through the whole series is his childhood (“It all comes back to this in the end, doesn’t it? To the mother.”): it is present from the very first scene, where it manifests itself in the shape of a mountain of babies. The only thing Lenny remembers of his childhood however, is that one day it was gone. Lenny is an orphan, a man who has never been somebody’s child and yet who becomes both father and mother of the Church. His constant search for God eventually coincides with his search for his parents. Only at the end, just like in a Bildungsroman novel, his severe facial features soften and, from being a reactionary and unconventional pope, Pius XIII goes back to being Lenny again, the champion of the only real human revolution: Love. And it is precisely in the love letters he once wrote to his young earthly love, that Lenny wonders about the true nature of this uniquely human sentiment. “What is more beautiful? […] Love lost or love found?” He is unable to find answers to his own questions, because “an orphan has no way of knowing”, an orphan lacks a first love and so his naiveté derives from this.
Sorrentino’s greatness lies in the fact that it does not consist of a morbid desire to reveal the scandals of the Church – in any case, as he says himself, the Vatican takes care of that on its own – but springs rather from his wish to talk about human beings. The Young Pope is the result of the ambition and determination of the director, whose good fortune also depends on the presence of a consummate professional like Jude Law, who has claimed to have accepted the part even before reading the script. An interesting detail betrays the fact that the director chose him for the role not just for his aesthetic qualities, the young pope clearly had to break with tradition in this sense, but after having noticed his way of walking in Road to Perdition. From then on, the process of building the character of Pope Pius XIII consisted in defining the details of his spiritual journey within the wider context of the journey of the Church and the Christian community as a whole. Lenny Belardo, in the moment in which he steps onto the grandiose stage of the Catholic Church, becomes Pius XIII. Nevertheless, he finally remains more faithful to his nature as an orphan, rather than truly embodying the role of pope. This is precisely the strength of the film, which displays a man in all his naked truth. It is in fact in suffering and weakness that humanity identifies itself most strongly.