Jude Law portrays the fictional Pope Pius XIII in The Young Pope, a series airing on HBO Canada. Photo courtesy of HBO Canada

There’s beauty in 'The Young Pope,' says Sr. Helena

  • February 3, 2017

For those suffering from a frail, forgotten or non-existent belief in God, the HBO mini-series The Young Pope has a message that may change some minds, says Sr. Helena Burns.

Burns, a member of the media-savvy Daughters of St. Paul who maintains a film review blog called Hell Burns, has given the much-hyped fictional TV series a definite thumbs up, with a few reservations.

“We feel God with Lenny,” the protagonist who becomes the fictional Pope Pius XIII, said Burns. “We’ve never seen a guy like this holy man. I wouldn’t be surprised if someone who doesn’t believe in God (who’s) watching him starts to feel like they believe in God as they enter into his experience.”

The series, which has drawn mixed reaction in its first season, began airing in Italy last October through Sky Atlantic, HBO’s European partner on the project, and made its Canada debut Jan. 15.

In the series, American Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law, spends his formative years in a Catholic orphanage under the supervision of religious sisters. Although Belardo is never formally adopted, one of the orphanage’s nuns, Sr. Mary (played by Diane Keaton), serves as his surrogate mother figure.

Belardo is eventually ordained as a priest, rises through the ranks and, at 47 years old, is elected as the first American pope just as the series begins.

“You are supposed to experience with the main character,” said Burns, who has watched all 10 episodes. “You are not supposed to just sit there and observe. You are supposed to be there and feel what they feel and see what they see.”

In many circles, the irreverent, provocative series has been widely denounced for its mocking, heretical portrayal of the papacy and the Church. Some scenes depict the pope as delusional, selfish and arrogant. At one point he even declares he does not believe in God.

The Hollywood Reporter described the character “as a borderline anti-Christ” figure with “nothing in common with the love and brotherhood preached by the current Pope Francis.”

The Washington-based Catholic News Service (CNS) criticized the film’s “cartoonish” view of the Church and concluded the film “repels more than it engages.” As “irksome” as that depiction will be for Catholics, the “level of outrage” will rise due to “a dream sequence in which Pius urges an adulating throng to have abortions, promote euthanasia and enjoy free love.”

“If that’s somehow meant to be thought-provoking, it registers instead as patently — and pointlessly — offensive,” wrote CNS.

Burns recognizes the series has faults, but contends there is much to praise in The Young Pope, especially its beauty, a trait which Burns said is characteristic of writer and director Paolo Sorrentino, who won an Oscar for best foreign film with The Great Beauty in 2014.

Set primarily in the Vatican, most of the filming took place at Cinecittà, the largest film studio in Rome which Benito Mussolini founded in 1937, and uses a combination of traditional and computer-generated sets.

Although dozens of films and series depict the Vatican — Hudson Hawk, The Godfather Part III and Angels & Demons for example — none compare to The Young Pope at capturing its beauty, said Burns.

“This guy (Sorrentino) is obviously all about beauty,” she said. “That is part of what upped the ante for me. I’ve never seen a religious film shot so beautifully.”

But it isn’t just eloquent lighting, fascinating framing and remarkably recreated settings which make The Young Pope visually superior in Burns’ eyes.

From nuns wearing “extremely authentic habits,” distinguishing their respective orders to the “Conclave’s party agendas,” and even how the priests speak, the series oozes authenticity, she said.

“There are going to be Catholics who don’t understand that this is the way it is (but) this is so true to life,” said Burns, who studied screenwriting at the UCLA. “It is just so realistic.”

One aspect that isn’t realistic is the multiple sex scenes which Burns called “pornography.” But that’s something she’s willing to overlook or look away from or change the channel momentarily.

If you ignore the sex scenes, Burns believes that Pope Pius XIII’s genuinely human relationship with God could inspire a non-believer to embrace Catholicism.

“God is central to the young pope’s life,” she said. “He is fervently seeking God Himself, rather more of God because he already knows God and has a deep relationship with God but he’s always wanting to go deeper. (And) not like simplistic very one dimensional ‘is there really a God’ — really old stuff like that is just a turn off and you are not really getting anyway.”

The scenes where Pius interacts with God made a big impression on Burns.

“Sometimes he prays publicly, sometimes we see him praying privately so we know that this isn’t just a show,” she said. “This is what we were created to do. We were created for God. Tell me the last time you saw that portrayed in a film, in a religious film or non-religious?”

What makes this relationship so realistic is that it is real, she believes.

“(Sorrentino) is exposing his own experience of God,” she said. “Most people just don’t go that deep in their faith. That is why they need little glowing lights to represent God and even in their storytelling it’s so superficial.”

The series, which is in development for a second season, is about “the clear signs of God’s existence,” said Sorrentino in a statement. “The clear signs of God’s absence. How faith can be searched for and lost.”

Ironically, while a degree of authenticity makes The Young Pope a powerful window into real-life Catholicism, it is because it is fiction that it can evangelize non-believers, said Burns.

“It is more comfortable when it is fiction,” she said. “Fiction is always easier to let your imagination go wild and you don’t have to judge this person because they are not real.”

Christian Elia, executive director of the Catholic Civil Rights League, which monitors Catholic portrayal in media, cautions against fictional entertainment replacing formation and catechist.

“They have to remember that it is an artistic interpretation, it is a work of fiction and they should not assume that anything that is alluded to is necessarily factual,” he said, adding that he has not seen The Young Pope.

He encourages people who are interested in learning about how the Church and Vatican really operate to engage in “some more scholarly research.”

Burns agrees about the importance of traditional evangelization, but insists there’s something special about The Young Pope.

“It is his closeness to God,” she said. “It makes you learn things that you can’t learn from a book.”

pope graphicGraphic by Lucy Barco

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