The last time Paolo Sorrentino visited the Vatican was only a few weeks ago, to meet a friend. He soon found, though, that he was also attracting an audience of his own: the clergy wandering the halls made furtive eye contact and shot him secretive half-smiles. The reception could hardly have been more different from his last interaction with the powers who rule the city state.
Then, he was making a "very big, very demanding, very ambitious request," as he recalled on a recent afternoon in Rome. The Italian director had asked that the walled-off grounds of Vatican City become the set of his new HBO series The Young Pope, starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton. The Vatican said no, unambiguously.
"My connections weren't that good after all," Sorrentino said with a smile. He slouched comfortably in his seat in faded boot-cut jeans, his button-up ajar, his sideburns as unruly as his hair—a figure largely unrecognizable from the beautifully styled men in his work. We were talking not far from some of the 50 locations around Rome—"the suburb of Vatican City," according to Keaton's Sister Mary—which now stand in for the Vatican of his imagination. (The gardens alone were stitched together in postproduction from seven local parks.)
Since taking home an Academy Award for his 2013 film The Great Beauty, Sorrentino, who is based in Rome, has catapulted from a director drawing comparisons to Fellini in Italy to an Oscar winner working in English and responsible for delightfully meme-able images of Jude Law stripped down to his papal Havaianas, outfitted in hats of all geometries, garbed in flowing gowns with tight bodices, and reposed in sumptuous, embroidered robes that match his blood-red leather Armani loafers.
These outfits are in fact real religious garbs. Sorrentino may have skipped film school, but he spent four years researching the papacy and its attendant pomp and ceremony. For a filmmaker who’s deemed eating too hideous an act to show onscreen, Sorrentino’s work is a visual feast, with settings so lush and scenes so carnivalesque that they often surrender to the surreal. It's a style he’s somehow carried over from the frenetic party scenes in The Great Beauty, which is set in contemporary Rome, to the dusty confines of Vatican City.
But for all the divine comedy in his show, there is also real institutional critique. The series seemed to have escaped the papacy’s notice when it debuted in Europe last year, but the social media reaction caused by The Young Pope’s American premiere has caused the Vatican to react with bemusement, according to Sorrentino's anecdotal evidence. (The Church has remained officially silent.) Now it's his turn to act indifferently. He insisted that he is not hesitant to call out an institution with over one billion followers on issues like child abuse: “I don’t think you should ever fear reactions when you’re a filmmaker,” he said. “You pretty much need to be reckless.”
Law's Lenny Belardo is an abandoned orphan who grows up to become the first-ever American pope, and who also happens to be a close-minded megalomaniac. Despite Belardo's relative youth (he is just 50), as Pope Pius XIII, his ideology, like that of his real-life namesake Pope Pius XII, is reactionary: he attempts to scour the Church’s clergy of its gay men, shuts the doors to anyone short of masochistic in their devotion, and refuses to even pose for a portrait to put on Vatican merchandise. (Maintaining a mysterious aura, he argues, puts him in the ranks of J. D. Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, and Banksy.)
In Sorrentino's recent films, aging men with mortality on the mind have dominated the frames: Sean Penn as a retired rockstar in 2011's This Must Be the Place, Michael Caine as a retired conductor in 2015's Youth. Jep Gambardella, the hero of The Great Beauty, realizes at the age of 65 that he abandoned a once-promising literary career for a superficial life of dilettante socializing. Lenny Belardo, though, is defined by his youth and action. “This is something that naturally happens in people’s lives,” Sorrentino said of his shift in focus. “When I was younger, I was attracted to older people. Now that I’m older myself, I’m inevitably attracted to people who are my age, or younger still.”
Politics is also more often than not a reaction to what came before it. Much has been made of the parallels between the young pope and Donald Trump. "I wrote this character of the pope a long time ago when Obama was the president. However, important nations like the U.S. and like the Vatican, they know that they are important because they know that they remain loyal to themselves. They're faithful to themselves. Pope Francis and Obama have led their countries, their states in a new direction and probably after that there will be the opposite tendency. What will happen afterward will be a conservative [push] to bring back to the status quo of what was there before," Sorrentino said to The Hollywood Reporter. "This explains why, after a pope like we have today, there could be a pope like Jude Law and why, after Obama, there could be a president like Trump."
"In certain men of power, the person's own inclinations, temperament, and weaknesses tend to seep into their political choices," he elaborated when we met. "It happens to Trump, and it happens to our pope in the series."
And yet, while Lenny is making these reactionary policies, he's doing so in a very athleisure sweatsuit. He drinks Cherry Coke Zero and smokes cigarettes. He listens to LMFAO. He flirts with a prostitute. He questions the existence of god. He wonders, during a Yeezus-like rant, if he in fact is the only Lord, even as he "pray[s] so hard I almost sh-t my pants." To Sorrentino, this is the disconnect of the Vatican, and of Rome, today: Here stands Saint Peter's Basilica, down the street from a Hard Rock Cafe.
To this point, Sorrentino likes to repeat what Napoleon Bonaparte said about Rome—that the sublime and the pathetic are just one step away. He still considers himself a newcomer to the city, despite having moved there from Naples a decade ago. "This is a city that the more you get to know it, the less you get to know it. The more you get to know it, the less knowable it becomes," he said, a little obtusely. "So this elicits in people, in myself, a healthy curiosity. I can experience it like a tourist but without having to go back home."
The distance both allows him to romanticize Rome and skewer it. He took a particular relish in satirizing the city's art scene in The Great Beauty, creating a farcical performance artist who resembled in no small degree Marina Abramovic. “That makes me laugh, and that will make everybody else laugh,” Sorrentino said. “But I’m not invariably ironic. I’m not invariably poking fun. Some are quack doctors, more or less, and others are just great artists.” Falling into the latter camp is the equally provocative Italian artist Maurizio Cattelan, a Sorrentino favorite whose sculpture of a pope struck by a meteor, “La Nona Hora,” makes a cameo in the The Young Pope’s opening credits.
But it was the late Italian avant-garde filmmaker Carmelo Bene whom Sorrentino called upon when I asked him whether he, like Lenny, also questions the existence of god. He wrinkled his nose and laughed. "Whenever this sort of question was put to Carmelo, he would answer politely, 'We're not on friendly enough terms for me to reply.'"
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