Morbid Curiosity – Sorrentino’s Ironic Pope

12th December 2016 | Eszter Simor.


Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII in the new series “The Young Pope” (2016).

Pope Francis was at the centre of internet attention a couple of days ago: using shocking vocabulary, he expressed his anger towards the media spreading fake news. He compared fake news consumers to those falling into “the sickness of coprophilia”, people who find pleasure in eating faeces.

The current pontiff is the first media pope. He puts real effort into connecting with his community by creating a brand around his persona on social media. Since joining in 2012, he now has 10.1 million online followers on Twitter and 3.1 million fans on Instagram. Pope Francis called the internet and social networks a “gift from God” when Apple CEO Tim Cook visited the Vatican this January, emphasizing that social media is a great way to connect with people. The Pope uses social media in a very conscious manner to spread his messages, be it the topic of creation, marriage or prayer for the victims of war.

Why are we so obsessed with scandalous news pieces? Paolo Sorrentino’s new television series, The Young Pope (2016), could not be more timely. It contemplates power and faith but at the same time, satisfies a morbid curiosity about death, sex and corruption. Just like Pope Francis, Sorrentino’s fictional pope also uses the media in a very conscious manner, but he chooses entirely different tactics.


Paolo Sorrentino on the set of “The Young Pope” (2016)

Awarded in 2013 with an Oscar for The Great Beauty, Sorrentino is famous for his sardonic wit. He said in an interview:

“When I start to write a movie, my first priority is that I want it to be funny… I want to make people laugh. On my way to doing that, I often wind up creating something that is also sad.” (Sorrentino, 2015).

As his own words suggest, scathing humour is at the centre of his oeuvre. His films poke fun at political leaders (Il Divo, 2008) mock burnt out celebrities (This Must Be the Place, 2011), satirize the Roman elite (The Great Beauty, 2013), and parody the way men look at women (Youth, 2015). As a director, he often makes it impossible for the viewer to decide what is meant to be funny and what serious. This ironically expressed ambiguity is the main characteristic of Sorrentino’s humour.

There are also magic characters in every Sorrentino film. In the ending of The Great Beauty, there is a yearning for spirituality, an attraction towards magic; characters who represent the possibility of magic – nuns who blow away flamingos (The Great Beauty) and levitating monks (Youth) – represent an impossible idealistic position that clashes with reality.

The Young Pope television series contains all the typical Sorrentino ingredients: excessive visuals, scathing humour and a yearning for spirituality. In the opening sequence of the first episode, the pope crawls out from the bottom of a huge pile of babies in St. Peter’s Square at night. This visually striking image is shown to be just a nightmare, though is a reference to the pope’s burdensome childhood, which later becomes the main source of conflicts.


Jude Law wearing elegant white and gold robes with sunglasses in “The Young Pope” (2016)

The ten-episode show is set in the present. Lenny Belardo (an excellent performance by Jude Law) is the first American pope. His chosen name, Pius XIII is a cause for worry: his predecessor was a fan of Mussolini. The new pope is young and radical. His aim is to reform the church according to his ultraconservative views and using Machiavellian politics. The character, therefore, is the exact opposite of Pope Francis, who is considered to use social media to emphasise the importance of love and tolerance.

Sorrentino’s pope also consciously uses media tactics to reach his goal but his aim is to be mysterious. Pius XIII goes against tolerance and political correctness. He tries to make the church appealing for the masses again by creating a mystery around religion. He expects “morbid curiosity” to make the faithful crawl back to the church on their knees. As an act of media suicide, he does not allow his image to be printed on any merchandise. He points out Sallinger, Kubrick, Banksy and Daft Punk as the most important artists of the recent past. The thread that connects them all is that none of them let themselves be seen or photographed. Following these artists’ lead, the young pope creates a mystery around his own persona.


Nuns play football in “The Young Pope” (2016)

Sorrentino’s blasphemy is as bold as his new politics. Thanks to the director’s soaring imagination and ironic sense of humour, the series is full of unexpected twists and amusing jokes. Pius drinks cherry coke for breakfast, waives Vatican non-smoking rules (but only for himself), and gets into his ecclesiastical uniform to the strains of I’m Sexy and I Know It.

However, blasphemy occurs when the Pope confesses to one of his priests that he does not believe in God. The priest is outraged, but he is bound by the secrecy of the confession. When the Pope sees that the priest is overwhelmed by bitter fury, he says: “I was just joking. Wasn’t it obvious?” The priest is relieved, but the viewer has doubts after having witnessed the power-hungry Pope’s arrogant and narcissistic behaviour in the Vatican. We cannot get rid of the feeling that it was not a joke at all. Sorrentino creates a radically ironic space here, a sort of double irony: the irony of irony.

The director’s greatest magic trick is that even his ironic characters yearn for spirituality. Pius is arrogant and cynical but he is magical: he is able to perform miracles. The main characteristic of Sorrentino’s humour is this yearning irony. He creates a pope who does not believe in God but is a real saint. By doing so, Sorrentino offers an insight into our appetite for the scandalous, and our need for unmitigated access to public figures.


Pope Pius XIII smokes and plays pool

About Eszter

I am a first-year PhD student in Film Studies. My research investigates how contemporary films that establish an absurd worldview and use dark humour to express social criticism can be read as evidence of political or social crisis. I love watching Hitchcock and reading Freud.

Article edited by Ian Anderson, Chantal Bertalanffy, Amadeus Chen, Erden Göktepe.

Works cited

Sorrentino as quoted in Rosen, Jody (2015) “Writing Hollywood.” New York Times, 12/06/2015 Dec 06.


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