The Young Pope is Kubrick for millennials
by Luke Ottenhof
February 13, 2017
The meme-ified series is filled with nods to Stanley Kubrick's approach to fear and fatalism.
“I think I was trying to suggest something about the duality of man, sir!”
Those are the words Private Joker offers to a colonel in Stanley Kubrick’s 1987 film Full Metal Jacket when pressed about why he wears a peace button while “Born To Kill” is emblazoned across his standard issue helmet. “What’s that supposed to be, some kind of sick joke?” the colonel prods. Joker is referring to Carl Jung’s philosophy on the contradicting natures of humankind; “every good quality has its bad side,” Jung argued back in 1933.
Kubrick loved that philosophy. The celebrated director loved any sort of conflict, any sort discomfort, particularly psychological distress; his belief was that the familiar could also be strange; that through art and context he could defamiliarize things to his audience was a core tenet of his filmmaking. Kubrick’s movies often centred on a deep, gnawing fear or unease, prompting the question, the unifying thread, that runs through his films: is fear the underlying energy of human affairs? It’s there from Paths of Glory to Dr. Strangelove to Eyes Wide Shut. But Kubrick didn’t always pose it to us in an obvious, in-your-face way; his was a more manipulative, slight-of-hand-style craft, which made us think things without him telling us to think them.
It’s become increasingly clear that Paolo Sorrentino’s affecting, remarkably fascinating series The Young Pope shares many of these Kubrick-isms. Sorrentino, who serves as the show’s writer, director, and creator, has woven a Roman Catholic parallel to House Of Cards, with Jude Law’s handsome, cutting Pope Pius XIII, or Lenny Belardo, serving as the Vatican’s Frank Underwood. Through the first season’s 10 episodes, Sorrentino threads discomfort, much like Kubrick did. Eric Thurm noted this auspicious, underhanded mastery in his review of the first episode: “You might not know what the hell is going on, but it’s already clear that Sorrentino knows exactly what he’s doing.”
Kubrick wasn’t just a master of making us noticeably uncomfortable; he also had a way of setting us on edge without us even knowing it. He would actually fuck with our subconscious by creating cognitive dissonance in facile, unremarkable ways that we often wouldn’t even notice. Early on in The Shining, Jack Torrance is awaiting his interview at the Overlook Hotel, reading a magazine. It’s a copy of Playgirl. I don’t know about you, but Playgirl isn’t my traditional pre-interview reading material. Later, when Jack is doing his interview, the office he’s in has a window to the outside, but they’re in the middle of the hotel. Again, innocuous. This is by design; most people don’t consciously notice these details, but your brain probably registered them, and waaaaay deep down was like, “the fuck?” It creates a dissonance that causes inherent discomfort and unease, involuntary, undiscussed.
That technique is employed, though less subtly, in The Young Pope. In fact, it’s present in one of the most visible but, again, seemingly unremarkable aspects of the show, a key cornerstone in its’ discomfiting narrative: Lenny smokes. He smokes in his room alone, he smokes on the grounds, he smokes in his outlandish regalia, he smokes in his office, he smokes in any and every room in the Vatican. It’s largely unspoken, but stigma around smoking cigarettes is still incredibly prevalent; it is by and large frowned upon, and associated with low culture. To insert this into the papacy seems benign, if comedic, but it also plays on our own predilections; Sorrentino activates our own thoughts on cigarettes and smoking to inform this contrast.
Of course, the setting of all of this is incredibly crucial for understanding this juxtaposition. The Vatican, the heart of the Roman Catholic church, is pristine, artful, and sanctimonious. The papacy, the highest office in that church, is a position associated with boundless reverence, humility, and generosity of spirit. That a cigarette-smoking misogynist is occupying and operating within these sanitized confines is no mistake; it’s a deliberate stylistic and thematic collision to provoke dissonance and discomfort.
Similarly, although Kubrick didn’t write Lolita, the uncomfortable subversion and dismantling of social mores in the film are equally reflected; elderly professor Dr. Humbert’s taboo, perturbing magnetism towards the young Lolita is an explicit juxtaposition of his presupposed aristocratic, high-class stature with decidedly base and immoral instincts. This clash (remember that whole ‘duality of man’ thing?) is played out in The Young Pope repeatedly, as Lenny’s own inexplicable magnetism to Esther first culminates with him watching her having sex from afar, then in a bizarre, pseudo-erotic groping. It mirrors the unsettling displacement of ideals and social acceptability in Lolita’s Humbert.
Sorrentino employs another old tenet from the Kubrick book with his use of the banal. For Kubrick, this meant employing unremarkable or mundane media to convey decidedly explicit or intense material; pairing the ordinary with the unordinary to, again, produce unsettling, distorted meanings. The most horrific idea could be normalized if presented pleasantly and flatly. Lenny hardly ever uses emotion or expression in speech; even his most heinous of orders, including wanting to kick out all gay clergymen, exiling pesky cardinals to frostbitten Ketchikan, Alaska, or decreeing that women who have had abortions must not be granted absolution in confession, are delivered in a monotone, slightly-upbeat manner. These lines are grave and disturbing; the gentle curve of Lenny’s mouth into an almost grin, paired with the nonchalant delivery, match Kubrick’s employment of the banal to distort and pervert meanings and contexts, thus creating added discomfort.
There’s also Kubrick’s dogmatic dedication to the idea of fatalism; you are in a universe that is on some level going to defeat you, and you will always lose. This ran (and still runs) contrary to what the majority of Hollywood and the film industry produces: a brand of heroism, in which the forces of good conquer over evil. In his embrace of fatalism, Kubrick is also sneering at heroism.
The Young Pope flirts with these lines time and again, but ultimately it settles on the inevitability of fatalism. After all, Lenny, the pontificate, the head of the church, confides in Don Tommaso that he doesn’t even believe in God, perhaps the ultimate and original icon of popular heroism (the idea itself can be understood clearly through the lens of religion, God vs. Satan and such). Lenny is couched in a context and surrounding that privileges heroism, and admits, in quiet and in confidence, that he believes rather in fatalism. Sitting on the stone of his balcony, Lenny declares to himself (although Tommaso is sitting beside him, the shot is focused entirely and intimately on Lenny’s face) with fiery conviction and emotion: “I love myself more than my neighbour, more than God. I believe only in myself. I am the Lord omnipotent. Lenny, you have illumined yourself.” He breathes for a split second, before punctuating with a muttered, “FUCK.”
As Full Metal Jacket draws to its close, Joker’s bloodied platoon marches off singing “The Mickey Mouse Club Song”; it’s a bizarre pairing, and a satirical, ironic and jarring repositioning of the banal against the grotesque to rearrange the scene’s meaning. The Young Pope follows in this vein; as Lenny is testing different regal papal outfits for his address to the cardinals, LMFAO’s preposterous party anthem, “Sexy And I Know It” is soundtracking the whole ridiculous thing (arguably, the banal and the grotesque here are reversed).
Joker opines over Full Metal Jacket‘s melancholy final scene: “My thoughts drift back to erect nipple wet dreams about Mary Jane Rottencrotch and the Great Homecoming Fuck Fantasy. I’m in a world of shit… yes. But I am alive. And I am not afraid.” That latent, repressed sexuality, and following declaration of simultaneous personal supremacy and helplessness, encapsulate the trademark philosophies of Kubrick. Sorrentino uses these to make The Young Pope a delightful, intriguing, and unsettling exercise in Kubrickian dread and discomfort amongst the marble halls of the Vatican, all dressed in white and smoking cigarettes.