Pius XIII, Donald Trump and the Religion of Narcissism.
Last night, HBO released The Young Pope (#TheYoungPope), a new TV series created by the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino (winner of the Oscar for Best Foreign Film in 2013 for The Great Beauty). The show explores the complex character and the intrigues surrounding the newly elected Pope, the young American Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law, who takes the name of Pius XIII as the new Pontiff of the Catholic Church.
It is almost impossible not to watch the show without seeing parallels to our present political landscape and, in particular, the similarities between the character of Pius XIII and the soon-to-be-president Donald Trump. The young Pius XIII is rude, defiant (he seems to have chosen the name Pius XIII to signal his affinities to Pius XI, the Pope during the rise of Italian Fascism, and Pius XII, the pope who remained silent during World War II and the Holocaust), narcissistic (he keeps reminding everyone that he is the Pope now, and everything seems to revolve around him), direct, unpredictable, likes to humiliate subordinates (he asks one of the main cardinals to personally bring him a cup of American coffee), has disdain for people (closes the St. Peter Basilica to tourists on a whim since he can’t stand them and wants to spend some time alone), and has no respect for the most basic moral principles of the Catholic tradition (he asks one of the main confessors of the Vatican to break the seal of confession and reveal to him the sins of important people in the Holy City). He also repudiates the leftist and progressive legacy of the previous Pope (a wink to the current Pope Francis), and wants to bring the Church to its past mystery and glory. In a moment during the first episode, Sister Anne, played by Diane Keaton, who raised Lenny since he was a young child (he is an orphan), tells him that Rome seems a suburb of Vatican City, to which the young Pope responds, “It’s not true but it will be.” Basically, he wants to Make the Catholic Church Great Again. Sounds familiar?
The parallels are so remarkable that it is practically impossible not to watch Pius XIII as a version of Donald Trump. This is a lucky (unlucky for the rest of us) coincidence, obviously, since the show was written and filmed before it became clear that Trump would become (it is still difficult to write this…) the president of the United States. But Sorrentino seems to have tapped into the wave of discontent that is sweeping the world, with the rise of extreme right movements all over Europe that culminated with Brexit, and that now have come to America. Sorrentino, an Italian, also has experiences with peculiar characters such as the fictional Pius XIII since Italy had Silvio Berlusconi as prime minister (four times over the last two decades).
One of the aspects that makes the show compelling is that Sorrentino and Jude Law’s take on this young Pope is not to simply portray him as a caricature, but as a complex individual. This is made explicit at the beginning of the show when the young Pope defines himself as a contradiction:
I am a contradiction. Like God. One in three and three in one. Like Mary, virgin and mother. Like man, good and evil.
It is that contradictory nature of the Pope as played by Jude Law that makes him so appealing, not as a person, but as a character. A similar thing can be said about Donald Trump, who as despicable as he may be as a human being, it is one of the most compelling characters (and I use compelling not in a positive way, but as in “we can’t stop talking about this guy” way) in recent American history. It is difficult to take your eyes off Pius XIII (a lot of it due to Law’s great performance): Why is he so rude? Why are people accepting his abuse? Why is no one challenging him? What is it about power that makes people behave in certain ways?
I am the Pope! Power without Moral Compass
The first episode of the show makes clear that the issue of power is one of the main ideas that is going to be explored in the series. Lenny is elected Pope since some of the cardinals believe that his youth and his lack of knowledge of the intricacies of power (he is an American after all!) will make him easy to manipulate, but oh are they wrong! For the Cardinals surrounding the new Pope, power is about knowledge, as one of them argues in the first episode:
Do you know why all the good souls of this world rage against power?
Why, Your Eminence?
Because they simply don’t know what it is.
What is it?
Power is knowledge.
While the new pope understands the importance of knowledge in order to obtain and maintain power (that’s why he asks the confessor to break his oath and tell him all the secrets he knows of the powerful people in the Vatican), he also understands it in a very instinctive way. He feels that he is the Pope not because of his abilities, or his faith, or his compassion, but because it is his destiny. Power, as understood by the new Pope, trumps (pun intended) tradition, law, and even truth. When the Pope starts smoking in the papal palace we witness the following exchange:
Holy Father, Holy Father, smoking is not allowed in the papal palace!
Is that so? Who decided that?
John Paul II.
Yes, the Pope.
There’s a new Pope now.
Smoking in the palace is ok because he is the Pope. Might makes right, so to speak. Trump has a similar view of the world revealed in his statement “If the president does it, it’s not illegal.” What’s also remarkable, is that the young Pope, at least in the first episode, does not seem to have a clear moral or doctrinal agenda for the Church, but he is very clear that he is going to assert his power at every occasion possible: to get what he wants no matter how petty and irrelevant it may seem (he won’t start the day until he gets a Cherry Coke Zero, which the Vatican staff scrambles to get on such short notice on the first day), to cofound expectations about what he is supposed to do (he will not offer the expected first homily the day after he has been elected even if people from all over the world have come to hear what he has to say), to impose his capricious priorities (“the pope wants to see all the gifts the pope receives. Have a storage facility fitted out for storing all the gifts I receive, [also] the Vatican must immediately buy back the papal tiara from the basilica in Washington DC, which my predecessors, who favored sobriety over tradition, imprudently let go”), to humiliate and destroy his enemies, etc. Power, as portrayed in the show, seems to reflect Wole Soyinka’s definition of it:
“Power is domination, control, and therefore a very selective form of truth which is a lie.”
Wole Soyinka, 1986 Nobel Prize in Literature
The Young Pope tells a joke: I do not believe in God!
One of the most remarkable moments of the first episode comes towards the end, when Pius XIII tells his confessor that, basically, he does not believe in God:
God, my conscience does not accuse me, because you do not believe I am capable of repenting. And therefore, I do not believe in you. I don’t believe you are capable of saving me from myself.
The confessor is obviously shocked and outraged, to which the pope simply responds that it was just a joke. And this is the key of the show, the surreal joke that Sorrentino is playing on us, the possibility of a Pope that does not belief in God. Which is funny, in a Italian surrealist way (like a Federico Fellini film), but it is also terrifying. A Pope who does not believe in God is like an American president who does not believe in democracy and the constitution…wait, does that make Trump’s presidency a joke? And if so, is it funny? I guess we are about to find out…