While this show is awash in ornate hats, ceremonial gowns, and deluxe red shoes peeping out from underneath satin robes, there has been no better fashion achievement than the “I’m a Virgin, but this is an old shirt” shirt that Diane Keaton’s Sister Mary sports while swanning around her gigantic Vatican apartment. It belies the cutting sense of humor in a woman who appears to be more of a smoking goblin, spying on her adversaries from a parking garage and skulking behind them in the palace gardens.
The more I get to know Sister Mary, the more I like her. She jokes with her other “son” Andrew about robbing the alms box to get plastic surgery, but she’s also vain enough that she wears a pair of partial Madonna gloves under her habit. She’s complicated enough that she looks like she could spit venom when Lenny tells her to call him “Your holiness,” but also goes along with it, calming him and encouraging him when he’s at his neediest. She beams when he is about to address the crowd in St. Peter’s Square, even though she championed the speech of his adversary Cardinal Voiello and seems to be warming to the cleric personally. Oh, and let’s not forget about her killer free throw form.
Speaking of nuns playing sports, which was a callback to the opening of the episode, when we see nuns in their full habit playing soccer, a cardinal reading an iPad, and a priest getting a shot. Here, Paolo Sorrentino is pitting the classicism of the church against the modernity of life, showing that the faithful are straddling the traditional and the cutting edge in an attempt to drag an old institution into the future.
The entire episode was really about opposites. When Sister Mary (or is it Andrew?) recalls his arrival at Sister Mary’s orphanage, the dialogue is similar to the flashback when we see Lenny’s arrival, but reversed. When Andrew calls her Sister Mary, she replies, “Call me Ma,” and we see in his chambers that he still uses that name for her. Either she intentionally favors one over the other (and has since their first meeting) or the two men remember the same experience very differently. It would explain why one wraps himself in the pomp of the office of the Vatican and the other engages in the “shit and life” of helping the poor in third-world countries.
Of course, the biggest reversal of the episode comes when Lenny finally gives his first sermon. It is day and night from the speech that he dreamed about at the beginning of episode one. In his dream, Lenny’s appeareance in front of the crowd brings the sun out from behind clouds. In reality, he delivers his speech in the dark, and his words causes the heavens to open up and rain to fall over the crowd. In his dream, Lenny says that the thing that has been forgotten is the people. In reality, he says that the people have forgotten God. In his dream, Lenny causes the cardinals to literally faint as he eases restriction and modernizes the Church. In reality, the people seem ready to desert him as he contricts the Church’s outdated doctrine into something of a choke hold.
The crowd’s reaction is a surprise to Lenny, who expected his shadowy appearance to be a revelation. He imagined they would want to know more about him and his edicts, but instead they tried to defy him and see his face. That’s because the people are the only ones around him that can tell him no. When marketing manager Sofia (Cécile de France) confronts him about putting his face on a tacky 45-euro plate that looks like something your hippy Aunt Taffy would buy at a swap meet and give you for a housewarming gift, she comes around to his idea that he should remain obscured, like the face of god. It’s another one of the scenes where he dresses down a member of his staff for not having suitably retrograde ideas about Church philosophy.
That scene, of course, has its mirror when Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), the former Cardinal for New York and Lenny’s mentor, dresses him down in his chambers. Those closest to us know which buttons to push, and Spencer tells Lenny that no one loves him, that he is a nothing, and that he will always be alone. He reminds him that his parents abandoned him, and that the papacy is no comfort. However, it’s Lenny’s behavior and his rhetoric that ultimately isolates him, not just from the Church but also its parishioners.
Lenny simultaneously embraces Spencer’s power-play tactics—witness his petty retributions against anyone in the Vatican who questions him—while still being shaken by them. Spencer’s torture leads him to that confrontation with Sister Mary about whether or not his parents might still be alive. He tells her that because he can’t see them he can’t see the face of god.
That’s what is so telling about his big speech. He’s accusing the masses of the transgressions that he is guilty of. He accuses them of being faithless when he is the one who lost god.
Lenny again clashes with modernity in the scene with the Prefect for the Congregation of the Clergy, one of the most striking of the episode. When Lenny asks him, point blank, if he’s a homosexual, the Prefect's face slowly melted in almost imperceptiblely before it collapsing altogether. The Prefect took off his glasses and put them back on before giving his answer, as if he were taking off a mask and then replacing it.
Lenny’s reaction proves that he is just as conservative as the Prefect feared. The Church’s current stance on homosexuality is that it is allowed. However, since homosexuals aren’t allow to marry and the Church does not allow sexual congress outside of marriage, a gay person should be chaste for their entire life. Yes, that means Grindr is not allowed in the Vatican. But it would mean that a celibate priest should, in theory, be allowed to be a homosexual as long as he doesn’t act on it.
As one of the clergy pointed out, Pope Pius XIII’s reign is shaping up to be very similar to that of Pope Pius XII, who held the office from 1938 until 1959, including all of World War II. That Pius was incredibly reactionary and took the Church back even further into the past, even as his fight against modernity cost the Church followers. He went so far as to excommunicate a cardinal who was critical of his response to WWII, his continuing to say the mass in Latin, and other such matters. He also had an older female nun as his confidant. Sounds familiar.
Pope Pius XII also once held the role of Cardinal Secretary of State, Voiello’s job. This episode really did a lot for Voiello’s image. While the first episode paints him and Lenny as co-villains, he seems to be redeeming himself quickly. When Sister Mary goes to spy on him, we expect to see him in the company of that hooker walking in behind him. Instead we see him comforting an ill child (possibly his son?). Later we see him asking forgiveness from the child and god for what he’s going to have to do to save the Church from Lenny. It seems like he does have a higher purpose than serving his own whims and power, which makes him, at this point, a different breed from his nemesis.
Eventually Lenny, Voiello, and everyone else is going to have to band together against that kangaroo bounding around the Vatican. Is there anything creepier than that creature, which has the head of a donkey and the body of Mike Tyson? It’s hard to believe the Australians sent him an actual kangaroo. That’s not a gift, that’s an obligation. Lenny thinks that he will set it free in the gardens, but it’s just creeping around waiting to pounce on someone. Maybe the cardinals should vote to make the kangaroo Pope. At least he’s not afraid of someone seeing his face.
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