Interview: Paolo Sorrentino on his “imaginary and improbable Pope”

9 May 2017

Interview: Paolo Sorrentino on his “imaginary and improbable Pope”

Director Paolo Sorrentino shares his inspiration, his challenges and his doubts on the making of The Young Pope, which he calls his “10-hour movie” – and tells us whether or not Catholics will like the series.

The Young Pope is the first television miniseries you have directed. What made you decide to take on this challenge?

I was curious. In recent years many great directors have done their part to break out of the traditional formulas of soap opera and series that until not too long ago dominated the TV landscape. The opportunity to experiment freely over the arc of such a complex and multifaceted storyline struck me as a tremendous opportunity.

“That was the only path that I was comfortable pursuing: continuing to make movies, with the one difference that I could imagine the story over a much longer arc of time.”

Working with [the producers and the broadcasters who produced the series], I was able to conceive and produce a ten-hour film. That was the only path that I was comfortable pursuing: continuing to make movies, with the one difference that I could imagine the story over a much longer arc of time, because the television miniseries is a sort of fortunate son of literature and film. It has the extended timeline of the novel and the visual possibilities that in recent years, thanks to the Americans in particular, have attained a level of quality and financial investment befitting great cinema.

How did you come to imagine your Pope?

While I was thinking about a film for television that would be set against the inevitably challenging backdrop of religion, I came up with an idea that was at first glance quite mad. “Why don’t we come up with a Pontiff who is in every way diametrically opposed to Pope Francis?” After a head of the Church who is so deeply invested in a positive relationship with the people and with large crowds, I imagined an alter ego who was totally different from him.

A man deeply tied to the traditions and the ancestral rituals of the Roman Catholic church. A Pope who shut doors—instead of throwing them wide open and acting the part of a conciliatory shepherd of souls, capable of persuading people who are very distant from his position—and who instead banishes sinners from the church, reviling them as unworthy. A Pope who would upbraid the faithful, demanding they make absolute sacrifices, and urging them toward a blindly obscurantist fideism.

That’s the very picture of Pope Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law. How did you choose the actor?

 I had seen him several years ago in Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition and what enchanted me then was the way he walked. In that movie, Jude walked in a way that revealed his character’s whole inner world. An actor who is capable of telling us so much about a character through simple body movement is an actor who is decidedly out of the ordinary. It’s something phenomenal. That weary, inevitable gait absolutely astonished me. I decided that that was the place to begin, from a vast, limitless talent. And only a limitless talent would be capable of taking on such a challenging character — the role of a Pope who doesn’t exist in reality.

“[Law] showed that he has two qualities that are crucial for this role: recklessness and self-awareness. Two qualities that are contradictory. But that is what great talents do, they are capable of contradictions.”

Did he turn out to be the actor you were looking for?

There were many points of contact between the character of the Young Pope and Jude Law. The age, the physical appearance, the charisma, and the ability to embody the duality I wanted to impart to the character. I wanted to direct an actor who was capable of portraying both a certain aspect of life and the opposite of that aspect, and Jude showed that he was indeed that kind of actor. He had exceptional qualities of concentration and endurance. This was a long film, and he committed to the project with a professionalism and a focus that you don’t often find … He showed that he has two qualities that are crucial for this role: recklessness and self-awareness. Two qualities that are contradictory. But that is what great talents do, they are capable of contradictions.

Tell us more about your depiction of the Vatican and the characters who occupy it.

The contamination between high and low in the Vatican is unmistakable. On the one hand, the sumptuous visual and iconographic display erected over the centuries is there precisely to strike sacred awe and a considered fear of God into those who approach it, leaving them duly intimidated in the face of such magnificence. On the other hand, the Vatican is a country that has the problems all countries have to deal with: the ATM that has to issue money, the pharmacy that has to provide medicines, the café that needs to keep a steady supply of foodstuffs and beverages. The Vatican is also a place where you can look out at the Dome of St Peter’s Basilica, one of the most marvellous creations in all of humanity’s history, and you can then shift your gaze by a dozen inches and chance upon a bored Swiss guard watching a show on TV.

How did you research the Pope and everyday life inside the Vatican before you began shooting? 

The topic is so vast that to gain even a rudimentary understanding, I would have had to wait another twenty-five years before beginning shooting. It was a catch-as-catch-can process: I started from the basics and then went on to read a great many diaries and biographies of cardinals, both serious ones and lighter ones. Which were perhaps the most interesting ones. Lightness removes inhibitions and brings to the surface things you might otherwise never have known. For everything else, I was helped a great deal by a brilliant journalist and theologian named Alberto Melloni. His assistance was fundamental.

“It was very expensive and complicated because, just as we expected, the Vatican refused to cooperate in any way. And I mean in any way at all.”

Was it complicated to shoot The Young Pope?

It was very expensive and complicated because, just as we expected, the Vatican refused to cooperate in any way. And I mean in any way at all. We were forced to reconstruct the settings by using points of view and locations that varied widely, and we were constantly worrying about whether what we had shot, in all its diversity, was consistent with our effort to assemble a unified locale. And after all, even the actual Vatican is already a hodgepodge of different ages and period styles.

The life story of the first American Pope in history is anything but straightforward.

From the very beginning of The Young Pope, we tell the viewers that the Pope, the first American Pope in the history of the church, was abandoned by his parents. His private life, from his childhood onward, is marked by solitude, he’s used to getting by on his own. Belardo is still a child, and yet he’s forced to deal with the world in adult terms. When he becomes Pope, his personal issues and his childhood traumas affect a billion faithful Catholics. We follow him in what is to all intents and purposes a coming-of-age story with many unresolved issues.

At first glance, the newly enthroned Pope does not give the faithful a sensation of trustworthiness. Is the Pope that you portray far from being a good man?

I’m not sure exactly what it means to be a good man and I don’t think I really want to find out. Lenny Belardo is a human being like everyone and, precisely because humanity is interesting, because no one is like anyone else, the things he does are unpredictable. Pope Belardo is neither good nor bad: he must untangle an internal contradiction within the context of a larger mission, that of being Pontiff.

For the role of Sister Mary — the nun who is going to help Belardo untie that knot, the very same woman who cared for him and raised him when he was a child — you chose Diane Keaton.

To me it was something of a challenge, a bet, and I have no doubt that the same is true for her. It seemed to me that this extraordinary actress has spent too much time doing comedy, and that many years earlier she had shown an exceptional talent for dramatic roles as well. It struck me as much more interesting to offer her a non-comic part than to give her a role that she could easily play with her eyes closed. Her private fears, her anxiety about taking on a role of that kind after so many years both flowed into the character of Sister Mary, bringing to it a performance that even I hadn’t fully expected.

Is the miniseries meant as a denunciation of the evils of the church or the immorality of the clergy?

No, and for that reason I haven’t borrowed anything from the latest Roman Catholic scandals: the sins and crimes of the clergy are depicted only to cast a small shaft of light that illuminates the character’s story.

How influential has your own religious faith been in the making of The Young Pope?

My job is to tell and depict stories; by definition, I cannot allow myself to feel that any aspect of the human condition is alien to me. The problem, in other words, is not whether I am a believer: no true believer would say that of himself, for fear of committing the sin of pride. Let’s just say that I allow myself to muse about the thousand nuances of faith and that, if there is a second season, then perhaps I’ll be better able to define that relationship in the future.

Will Catholics like this film?

They’ll like it if they look at it with the sense of enthusiasm and delight that a painting might deserve. When you look at a painting, you don’t do it to check whether it corresponds to the catechism or to figure out whether or not the painter deserves to be considered a good Catholic. They will like it if they turn a benevolent gaze upon it, if they go along with the game of human emotions, if they understand that The Young Pope speaks to their humanity, and if they make an effort to wipe the damp, encrusted patches of conformism off their eyeglasses. If they expect a philological adherence to dogma, then no, they won’t like it.

“My Pope is driven by doubt, and doubts afflict me too.”

What have you learned from these two years spent making this film?

I hope that I’ve made a good film, but for now, unquestionably, they’ve brought me a further array of doubts. My Pope is driven by doubt, and doubts afflict me too. In a certain sense, for almost two years, we’ve walked together, side by side. Arm in arm.

—translated into English by Antony Shugaar

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