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Laughing at God

This weekend marks the release of two remarkably different explorations of Catholicism. What does it mean that Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Young Pope’ feels more relevant than Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’?

(HBO/Ringer illustration)
(HBO/Ringer illustration)

There is — thank God — one brief moment of comic relief in Martin Scorsese’s solemn, nearly-three-hour epic Silence. The setup does not exactly sound like a knee-slapper, but hear me out: It is the year 1643, and a captured Jesuit priest from Portugal sits across from a Japanese magistrate, attempting to explain why it is his mission to spread the Christian gospel throughout Japan. The priest is played by ex-Spider-Man Andrew Garfield (who in the past few years has rebranded himself as perhaps the most earnest young actor in Hollywood); the magistrate is played by the Japanese comedian Issey Ogata. It’s one of Silence’s best scenes, partially because the actors’ styles clash as cataclysmically as their characters’ religious philosophies. Garfield plays it with sincere melodrama, Ogata with an exaggerated flamboyance cut through with wry irony. The joke comes slowly enough that at first you think that you’re imagining it: To wordlessly express how bored he is with the priest’s babbling about Christianity, the inquisitor slowly sinks into his robes, like a wilting flower. When I saw it, the audience laughed. A little too loudly, actually; the previous two hours of the movie had been so arid that we acted as if this was the funniest thing that had ever happened on celluloid, drinking it down like a merciful sip of water.

It’s not every weekend that you get not one but two accomplished filmmakers of Italian descent premiering panoramic explorations of Catholicism, but Silence’s wide release comes just two days before the HBO debut of Paolo Sorrentino’s subversive and surreal series The Young Pope. It already ran this fall overseas, and it was a sensational hit in Sorrentino’s home country of Italy, where the first two episodes of The Young Pope averaged three times as many viewers as the season premiere of Game of Thrones. In the U.S., it has enjoyed an even more rarefied version of success, becoming an internet meme in the weeks leading up to its arrival.

Silence has not had such exciting prerelease hype: Earlier this week, the New York Post ran an article with the headline “Martin Scorsese’s ‘Silence’ Is in Big Trouble Before It Even Opens.” The writer called the film “unambiguously the biggest flop of Hollywood awards season” and “one of the biggest disasters of Scorsese’s career,” citing the facts that it has been snubbed for most major awards (even though the Oscar nominations haven’t yet been announced) and that the critical reception has been mixed. The tone of the article was particularly nasty, but it had a point: It’s hard to imagine this film finding a wide audience in 2017, or even pissing people off as vehemently as Scorsese’s previous Catholic passion project, 1988’s The Last Temptation of Christ.

Scorsese optioned the rights to Silence back in 1989, and in the nearly 30 years he’s been trying to get the project into production, there have been a few shake-ups in the Catholic Church. Sex scandals rocked the institution in the early 2000s, and it has since been uncovered that hundreds of clergy members in the Boston Archdiocese had been accused of sexually abusing minors. The controversy tarnished the reputation of the church irrevocably, especially among those too young to recall its past glories. But in the past few years, the wildly popular Pope Francis has given the church something of an image rehabilitation in the eyes of the world, adopting a relatively more lenient stance on issues like gay rights, abortion, and, most recently, public breastfeeding. It says a lot about both the travails and the progress of the Catholic Church in the past decade that a show as irreverent, bizarre, and subversive as The Young Pope feels more in step with the times than the latest offering from Martin Scorsese.

Based on Shusaku Endo’s 1966 novel of the same name, Silence tells the story of two Jesuit priests, Rodrigues (played by Garfield) and Garrpe (Adam Driver), who hear rumors that their beloved spiritual teacher Father Ferreira (Liam Neeson) has, in the process of trying to spread Christianity throughout Japan, renounced his faith. A Jesuit missionary had brought Catholicism to Japan about 100 years beforehand, but by the mid-17th century, the state had begun persecuting Christians in an attempt to enforce Buddhism as the country’s sole religion. The young priests receive the news of their mentor’s apostasy with disbelief, and they set out on a dangerous journey to find Father Ferreira, who’s kind of the Colonel Kurtz of Silence. Garrpe is the more skeptical of the two, while Rodrigues is unceasingly strident. By the end of the film, when he is presented with an opportunity to renounce his faith in order to save the lives of many tortured Christians, Rodrigues will be forced to confront the film’s provocative central question: Is it more Christlike to follow the Bible’s teachings to a T or are there contexts, especially in the modern world, in which one must reinterpret the word of the Lord in order to alleviate human suffering?

Silence is 161 minutes long and feels twice that. It’s a challenging sit: Slow-moving plot, sparse dialogue, interminable images of torture. It is likely to alienate even some of Scorsese’s die-hard fans. About 30 minutes in, when I saw it play to a half-full house this week, the man sitting next to me gave up, grumbling “this is terrible” on his way out of the theater. There were moments during the subsequent two hours that I wished I’d followed him. Silence is protracted and self-consciously epic; I spent some of its slower passages making a mental list of all the great and more intimate movies that interrogate the question of God’s infinite silence in literally half its run time: Ingmar Bergman’s profound 81-minute Winter Light, Robert Bresson’s unforgettable 78-minute Mouchette, and, as Scorsese certainly knows, most cuts of Roberto Rossellini’s Journey to Italy. And yet, I haven’t stopped thinking about this movie for days. It touched something deeply buried in me. I fidgeted in my seat the whole time, I couldn’t wait for it to be over, and it will probably haunt me profoundly for years to come. It is, in that sense, a very Catholic movie.

For the sake of contrast, it’s worth revisiting the debate surrounding The Last Temptation of Christ. Based on Nikos Kazantzakis’s infamous 1955 novel of the same name, The Last Temptation of Christ imagined Jesus, in the final hours of his life, grappling with human emotions such as fear, self-doubt, and even sexual desire. In its most controversial scene, the book depicts an alternate reality in which Jesus comes down from the cross and begins a sexual relationship with Mary Magdalene. Scorsese tried to get the movie made for years and faced resistance from the Catholic Church. Finally released at the tail end of the Reagan era, in 1988, Last Temptation caused a tidal wave of controversy when it came out: Several major theater chains refused to screen the movie (and a few bomb threats were called into theaters that did); Blockbuster banned home video copies from its stores; and most severely, Christian fundamentalists set fire to a theater in Paris while the film was playing, injuring 13 people.

Silence is unlikely to cause that kind of a cultural maelstrom. That’s partially because the story it tells is more obscure — fewer people are likely to be offended by a movie focused on semifictionalized Jesuit priests than they are a controversial telling of the story around which the entire Christian faith is based. But it’s also being released into a very different moment, when the Catholic Church occupies a different place in American consciousness, and when its numbers are in a rather sharp decline. According to a 2015 Pew Research Center study, the number of Americans who identify as Christians dropped 7 percentage points between 2007 and 2014 to an all-time low of 70.6 percent. That’s still a large majority of the country, but the fact that millennials are disavowing religion “in droves” suggest that these numbers will only continue to fall in the coming years. Catholicism seems to be in particular trouble: Its decline is happening at a faster rate than any other denomination, and nearly 13 percent of all Americans now identify as or “former” Catholics.

A lot has happened to the church in the 30 years since Last Temptation came out, most woundingly the widespread sexual abuse scandal that tarnished its reputation in the eyes of many believers and nonbelievers alike. Hollywood’s most successful recent portrayals of Catholicism bore unflinching witness to these realities. The winner of last year’s Academy Award for Best Picture was the harrowing Spotlight, a film about the Boston Globe investigative journalists who uncovered a priest sex abuse scandal in their own backyard. It was both a mark of the film’s quality and a sign of more open-minded and permissive times that even the Vatican newspaper didn’t condemn it as anti-Catholic.

“The thrill of the Sopranos comes to the Vatican,” raved the Catholic Herald back in October, when Paolo Sorrentino’s ornate new TV show The Young Pope premiered overseas. “Some Catholics may find elements of the show too edgy,” the reviewer wrote of the series, which features in its first five minutes alone a view of the pope’s naked backside and a subjective shot that shows him daydreaming about a topless woman, “but I was gripped by what I watched.”

Hilariously, “the thrill of the Sopranos” already came to the Vatican in 2011, when Italian director Nanni Moretti released We Have a Pope, a comedy about — I swear I am not making this up — a reluctant pontiff who is crippled by anxiety attacks and cannot accept his new title until he undergoes psychoanalysis. Though it’s a little more playful and modest in scope, We Have a Pope now feels like an important precursor to The Young Pope, in its assertion that in the 21st century the Vatican can be fertile ground not only for West Wing–esque workaday drama, but also a subversively silly kind of comedy.

Taking place in an alternate-reality present day, The Young Pope imagines what would have happened if the church — positioned at that crossroads of declining faith and a diminished image in the aftermath of controversy — chose as its leader not someone like the progressive and open-minded Pope Francis, but a stringent and hard-to-like pontiff intent on making the Catholic Church less accessible than ever. Jude Law plays the American-born Lenny Belardo (I still can’t get over that name) with a regal sense of remove. We have no idea what he’s really thinking, and in his most severe moments he seems uncomfortably close to tyrannical. He is the Old Testament God of popes.

Time will tell if Twitter gets bored with The Young Pope over its 10-episode run, but I suspect that some of the people who thought they were ridiculing the show’s pompous sense of importance will be relieved to know that The Young Pope is in on the joke, and perhaps — as when Diane Keaton’s nun character, Sister Mary, is shown sleeping in a tee that says “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt” — even one step ahead of it.

All the rumors you’ve heard about the Young Pope are true. He smokes like a papal chimney. He drinks a Cherry Coke Zero every morning for breakfast. He is devilishly sexy and he knows it. He is kind of an asshole, and spends much of the pilot wickedly pranking the lowly priests and cardinals around him; he confides in a Vatican official that he doesn’t believe in God, and then says, “Just kidding!” In the second episode, he receives a kangaroo as a gift and roguishly unleashes it on the Vatican lawn.

The Young Pope comes from the mind of Sorrentino, an Oscar-winning Italian filmmaker whose vision is at once impish and grandiose. At best, his films are lavish visual desserts; at worst, as with his recent movie Youth, they are a collection of pretty images that don’t amount to much, emotionally or narratively. The Young Pope, though, doesn’t succumb to his signature flaw nearly as much as I expected it would. It’s the right combination of compelling and meandering, undercut with just enough WTF moments (such as Sister Mary’s love of basketball, or a major plot point involving a laser pointer) to keep even the most cynical viewer guessing. Its portrayal of the Catholic Church does not shy away from the possibilities and realities of corruption (it’s much more barbed than We Have a Pope in that way), but it’s filmed so beautifully that Sorrentino more often seems to be reveling in Catholic imagery than explicitly critiquing it.

Still, the most surprising thing about The Young Pope (followed closely by that kangaroo) is the fact that the Vatican has not yet condemned it — it ranks almost as high on the Blasphemo-meter as The Last Temptation of Christ. (“The Young Pope is a hit with Catholics — so why is the Vatican so silent about it?” the British paper The Independent wondered during its U.K. run.) Therein lies the paradox of The Young Pope: Even though it tells the story of a harshly conservative papacy, it probably only could have come out (and been such a success) during the reign of Pope Francis, whose open-minded approach and stance on everything from prog rock to climate change has inched the church ever so slightly away from its stodgy reputation. Catholics can laugh at The Young Pope with diminished guilt, knowing it’s at least possible to imagine their own pope enjoying it in private.

I was raised Roman Catholic, confirmed in the church a few years before the Boston sex scandal rocked its foundations. When I was young, Catholicism felt like an infinite list of rules too long to ever remember; God was something I always felt like I was doing wrong. I remember my confirmation as both a day of celebration but also one of early teenage liberation: After eight years of mandatory catechism and several years of writing reports on the weekly homilies to prove to the sisters that I was going to church, I was now an adult in the eyes of the parish, which meant it was up to me how and why and whether or not I would continue to worship.

My parents never sat me down to talk about the sex scandals, and in fact, for the first few years they were being reported, I think I subconsciously tuned them out. It was too painful to engage with the notion that the institution into which I’d poured years of my young life and the energy of my devotion could also, simultaneously, be a place of such sickening abuse and corruption. It was even more disorienting to consider how the same institution that had shaped and attempted to tame the earliest ideas about my own sexuality — ye ole Catholic guilt — was at the same time committing acts of sexual abuse against children.

I am one of those 13 percent of Americans who has lapsed in their Catholicism, and for me, Silence and The Young Pope both have been continuations of a pop cultural reckoning that Spotlight sparked. Last year, I thought it was strange that so many people talked about Spotlight as though it were a movie about journalism — “the All the President’s Men of our time” — when to me it was first and foremost a movie about Catholicism, and particularly wrestling with lapsed faith or questioning the religion in the wake of those scandals. I saw it in a theater one afternoon and wept, especially at the moment right before the credits, when the screen fills with the locations of churches all over the country and the world where similar abuses had taken place. My mom saw it, too, and — in one of those moments when you realize how powerful a good movie can be — we had maybe the most honest conversation about God and religion we’ve ever had afterward.

Sometimes, to keep from crying or from choking, you just have to laugh. In my adulthood, I’ve found it an oddly cathartic way to process my upbringing. When I talk to friends about growing up Catholic, I focus just as often on the funny stories: the catechism class clown who, upon sampling the Eucharist for the first time during Holy Communion practice, turned to the rest of us and said, “Tastes just like pizza!” The Cool Guy teacher who tried to impress us by saying he had seen Limp Bizkit come out of a toilet on the Family Values Tour, flashing his bona fides before telling us why Christian rock was so much better. The nervous eighth-grader who had asked, during a candid Q&A session on a co-ed pre-Confirmation retreat, whether or not masturbation was a mortal sin, and the look on his face when the priest said yes.

I appreciate The Young Pope for both its humor and its unsanctimonious depiction of corruption within the church. I appreciate the memes, too, and I wonder if it’s not too much of a stretch to say that they represent a generation of people raised with mixed messages about the Catholic Church working out some of their own ambivalence en masse. The show is pulpy and occasionally ridiculous, but it’s a welcome change from the grim and dolorous fare usually served up about Catholicism. The fact that very few Catholic publications have condemned it just might mean we’re beginning to see a more permissive relationship between the Vatican and the pop culture that the billion-odd Catholics in the world are probably going to consume anyway, with or without the guilt.

Even though it’s a hell of a lot less fun, Silence, too, offers ample space for contemplation of a faith that exists outside of strict doctrine, which means it’s a cathartic part of the lapsed-Catholic healing process. It is a reminder that even in moments when atrocity is being committed in the name of religion, it is possible for a free-thinking individual to suss out the holy from the rotten, and use the untainted parts of his or her religious teachings to try to be a good person. I’ll probably never feel the need to watch it again, but I’ll raise my chalice of Cherry Coke Zero in its honor.

Disclosure: HBO is an initial investor in The Ringer.