February 17, 2017

WHITE KNUCKLES | The Young Pope, Liquid Modernity and Indignation

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This year, Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino impacted my break and my liberal college student intersectional-feminist-relativistic-somewhat nihilistic philosophy more deeply than I like to admit. His miniseries The Young Pope had me glued to the television in my colorful (green and red-walled) living room in Italy, caught up in a story that I never saw coming.

The show opens with a balding yet ever-attractive Jude Law interpreting a newly elected, 47-year-old Pope giving his first address in Saint Peter’s Square in Rome. His speech is groundbreaking: it celebrates homosexuality and free love, different religions, abortions and premarital sex. The next scene reveals that it was all a dream; the attractive Pope will actually be unforgiving, conservative, homophobic and cruelly unwavering in his dogmatic beliefs. I am not really interested in describing the plot (no one likes spoilers), nor will I evaluate the show’s stunning cinematography, the wit of its lines, the light and gold of its faithful reconstruction of Vatican City or the heart wrenching beauty of its season finale. Moreover, the story that I never saw coming isn’t only that of Pius XIII in the show, but is especially mine: of the changes I underwent growing up, of those (more dramatic) changes that are still occurring, when I thought I had already grown up.

In the show, the Pope is an island of firmness in a fluid society, borrowing Bauman’s definition. A fluid society is one in which, after the great pillars of human history – homeland, family, God – have been declared outdated, people become responsible for molding their own set of values, instead of being automatically inserted in the default ones. This has caused a phenomenon of chaos; in Breakfast of Champions, Kurt Vonnegut writes that one has to adapt to chaos, that order is only for fictitious, invented narratives. And, as he himself admits, it is very difficult to adapt to chaos. In a fluid society, changing is preferred to staying: moving to another country, choosing a new spouse, oscillating between political parties. I am a loyal member of this society; my journey in America has showed me a fluidity that I never saw in Italy, and I liked it – I thought it equated freedom, critical thinking and tolerance. Another Baumanian concept that I identify with is indignation, a more cultured form of populist furor by which one knows exactly what they do not want, and in whose name one goes against the current – any current – obstinately and fiercely, building complex antitheses and brilliant confutations.

In Sorrentino’s miniseries, even the Church is fluid, fluctuating between secret lust, hypocritical splendor, hacked elections (very real), power schemes, backstabbing, missionary nuns gone bad, blackmail and too much gold. The Pope, along with very few people, represents an unwavering ideal of morality that is far removed from us: without ever showing his face, Pius XIII reproaches the faithful for forgetting God, a biblical God who does not condone homosexuality or abortion. There are no smiles and no leniency; forgiveness is withheld, and the Pope tells the people that they owe nothing to each other, only to God. Even in private, Pius XIII is cruelly unmovable and unblackmailable in so far as he cares nothing about being liked or seen as despotic and arrogant. Yet many accuse him of not believing in God, and it is unclear whether their accusations ring true. “The second calling is much harder than the first, because you no longer have that youthful enthusiasm”, says a character in the show. And this is what, for me, Sorrentino’s show is about: the story of a second calling. The Young Pope, as a static character, changes slowly and steadily; in the last episode, he smiles.

The second calling is harder than the first. I grew up a Catholic, going to Sunday school and summer camps and receiving Confirmation. Now, sometimes I feel like I don’t believe in anything. I believe in love because I’ve been gifted with so much throughout my life, but it is a human love, made of hands and words and bodily warmth. I don’t know if I believe that there is a direction, a parabola for humanity. I surely think there is an end, but again, a very human one: a nothingness. And while I was trained to believe that rising above incorporeal belief and speculations could defend us from fear of uncertainty and that absurdity was a sign of good education and critical thinking and strength of soul, Sorrentino and Law made me wonder if I might be more fearful than I thought.   

In the show, Pius XIII says that he has chosen to love God because human love is more liable to suffering, to abandonment, to disappointment. But I think that the opposite is true: in the realm of human love, even after the pain, there is room for anger, for blaming someone else, for changing behavior, for trying again. But when it comes to these big narratives – homeland, family, humanity – the stakes are higher. When it feels like the whole world has let us down, that is more difficult to accept. One can feel so powerless that it is easier to say that nothing really exists; that values haven’t been trampled because there are no values; that democracy hasn’t failed because it never worked; that God is dead because It never existed. I am not advocating for a mass conversion, nor for a religious or ascetic life, nor for moral absolutism. I am just surprised at how scary it is to find that something has been lost after thinking for a while that it never existed, and at how refreshing it is to have come to this realization – because if something was there, it can surely be rebuilt, revised and improved.