The Invisible Pope
This Pope, this Pope is a strange Pope. What was hinted at, yet obfuscated in the first episode is here revealed in all its glory: he’s determined to shake up the Holy See, not to say he wants to shake it down. Cécile de France, aging gracefully, is introduced as the Head of Papal Marketing. She meets the Pope in order to discuss limited edition plates bearing his effigy, since he’s so young and photogenic, that and of course key rings, iPhone covers, snowing balls and the lot. He will have none of this Temple merchants nonsense: “I don’t have an image because I am no one, I am worth nothing.” he retorts. Secretary of State Voiello scoffs: he knows better than anyone what a source of revenue the papal knick-knack is to the Vatican. The Head of Marketing is quicker than the cardinal to see the Pope’s point, in one of Sorrentino’s delightful display of irony.
The man is impressive at handling contradiction, showing contradictory versions of two key scenes, the child arriving at the orphanage and the Papal address on St Peter Square. The matter of this first homely looms over all conversations. Drafts are presented, only to be discarded. The Pope, of whom no picture has ever been taken, is left a blank for the Catholics, the white silhouette he appears as on the series poster. He’s Holy Ghost and white smoke; he’s hyperbole in reverse. He refuses to be lit for the address; “Reveal his eyes right now would be too much for the world”, says Diane Keaton with the utmost seriousness, which elicits the kind of giggle one has when tasting one’s favourite treat.
Another example of contradiction is the Pope’s visit to Cardinal Spencer, the mentor whom should have been elected to papacy should have Voiello not use his nefarious influence. “You are the Pope and you are all alone. You’re nothing.” says Spencer with bitterness and spitefulness, but the formula expresses something altogether different than the first time. Pius XIII is hurt. He’s still human, somewhere inside, as demonstrated by his compassion for the kangaroo offered to him by the Australian Ministry of Foreign Affairs. He’s just full of this quiet, cold rage that no one around him has yet measured.
The Pope has a “brother” as well as a “mother”, another cardinal of the missionary type, who states that the Vatican smells like incense and death, when the outside world smeels like s**t and life. Meeting the Prefect of the Congregation for the Clergy, a powerful man he has chosen as his first official meeting, the Pope tersely asks him “Are you a homosexual, Your Eminence?”. He has a swift cleaning of the stables in mind, which upsets not only Voiello, but even Sister Mary, although she’s glimpsed wearing a t-shirt with the phrase “I’m a virgin but that’s an old t-shirt”.
Then comes the address itself, and it’s hardcore. Hardly silhouetted against an overcast sky, the Pope directly adresses the crowd asking to see him. “I will never be close to you.” he says, his cold rage turning into fury. Then he storms back inside, the clouds breaking over St Peter Square, making him more the incarnation of God’s wrath than a Holy Father, in frontal opposition with his beatific first appearance at the balcony in the previous episode. What if the man elected to St Peter’s throne was a maniac, resolved to serve only God, whatever happens to His followers, annihilating himself in the process? That this series asks this kind of question while remaining that funny is the measure of Sorrentino’s talent, as a writer and a director.