The Holy Dictator
Childhood is at the core of this episode, childhood and family, or the absence thereof. “Orphans”, says the Pope, “are never young”, alluding to his growing up in an orphanage, under Sister Mary’s tutelage, after his parents abandoned him. This Pope is alone and the only conversation he deems worthy of him is with God; this conversation is more argumentative than beatific though, so unsure is Pius XIII of genuinely believing in the One he’s being an earthly deputy of. He is the only master after God, his papacy making him the absolute spiritual sovereign of a billion Catholics, and there is a growing suspicion, especially among the always well-intentioned media community, that he aspires to divinity himself.
Cardinal Spencer, his mentor, calls him “a vindictive little boy”. “You will be the worst Pope of modern history”, he chastises, before going to Canossa and kneeling down to accepté the job he has been offered, only to meet a stern rebutal. This Pope has his own agenda and he doesn’t take contradiction kindly: his two trademark answers are “Later” or “Too late”. He is a fantastic character, inspiring human sympathy as much as holy terror. He can be a kind man when confering with his confessor or what seems to be the closest he has to a friend, saintly but flawed Monsignore Guttierez (Javier Cámara, excellent), or a block of ice when he uses the blunt force of his papacy to destroy the obstacles to what he calls “his plan”. Is he one or the other, or neither or both? “Absense”, he says, “is presence, the essence of mystery”.
It is fascinating to watch the plot unfold, and one delights at the way Sorrentino adds, with the gentlest of touch, layers of theology to the most eroded of concepts in movie history, family. Becoming Pope, the orphan son has become the father and he longs for another visit of the Holy Spirit. And of course, no Holy Family would be complete without a virgin mother, so there’s Sister Mary, trying to quieten the media uproar during a press conference which is more martyrdom than marketing. “Who are you?” asks an unfuriated journalist. “I am Sister Mary”, she answers, looking like a rabbit in a car headlights. Brilliant.
Sorrentino also hints at the father of all mad dictators caught on film, Chaplin’s, with the help of the giant crystal globe in the Pope’s chamber, playing a prominent role in two key scenes, one about power and one about weakness. A new character is introduced, Esther, played by Ludivine Sagnier (always welcome). It would be very surprising that the character’s name was chosen randomly: the Book of Esther is the only one in the Jewish Bible in which God’s name is not pronounced, she’s an orphan (understand: nothing) and a Jew, who avoids the massacre of her people by seducing King Xerxès. She seems to be the only one to have liked the Pope’s address but, he says, circling around her like a shark, “liking is not enough”. The scene ends up in a completely unexpected way, with one of these jarring contrasts Sorrentino masters so deftly.
As always, hilarious details sugar the bitter political/religious pill. Cécile de France is the only character to giggle at the Pope’s crual jokes; one priest is a philanderer and another an alcoholic; the Holy Father still really wants to get his tiara back from Washington and he tells his confessor, in the opening scene, that during the conclave “I prayed so hard that I nearly sh*t my pants”. What remains as a common denominator between the lighter scenes and the dark ones is the absolute violence of language, of words, from politics to blasphemy. Amen to that.