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The Young Pope – the perfect Anti-Trump

November 22, 2016


The Young Pope is magnificent. Laden with symbols and portents. In other words, ominous.

HBO’s series about Lenny Belardo, who becomes the first American pope, passes my dream test with flying colours. I know that I’ve seen something special when I dream about it, not only at night but in my waking hours.

The sets, the acting, the script, Jude Law’s portrayal of a tortured soul and the unpredictability of the plot have embedded themselves in my conscious like few other dramas in recent times.

I’m wondering why I’m so enthralled. Perhaps because the timing is exquisite. Here is a man who appears from out of the blue and threatens to change everything. Sounds familiar? Then again, I suppose if you try hard enough, you can make connections between most things that dominate your thoughts. At least Carl Jung thought so when he talked about synchronicity.

And we certainly seem to be living in fearful times, when superstitions normally confined to the subconscious come to the fore. We see meaning in the accidental, intention in the coincidental.

Anyone who is familiar with Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar will know that the ancient Romans were deeply superstitious. Here’s his wife Calpurnia, urging the great man not to venture out on the Ides of March:

Caesar, I never stood on ceremonies,
Yet now they fright me. There is one within,
Besides the things that we have heard and seen,
Recounts most horrid sights seen by the watch.
A lioness hath whelped in the streets;
And graves have yawn’d, and yielded up their dead;
Fierce fiery warriors fought upon the clouds,
In ranks and squadrons and right form of war,
Which drizzled blood upon the Capitol;
The noise of battle hurtled in the air,
Horses did neigh, and dying men did groan,
And ghosts did shriek and squeal about the streets.
O Caesar! these things are beyond all use,
And I do fear them.

Now I’m not generally one to don my toga and stare out over Capitoline Hill (or in my case, the garden of my suburban home) looking for gloomy omens, even though much of what I’ve written since the coming of Brexit and Trump has been pretty doom-laden.

But the other day, for no particular reason, I happened to glance out of the window. There, on our back lawn, was a flurry of feathers. A predator – a kestrel perhaps, or maybe a hawk – was devouring a pigeon. The victim was still alive, twitching. I went outside to identify the aggressor. Before I could make out more than the familiar hooked beak and fantail, it carried the pigeon aloft and flew away. What’s more, the pigeon was scarcely smaller than the bird that carried it.

To say that it was an unusual sight was an understatement. In thirty years of living in the house and looking out on our very tame garden, I had never seen a bird of prey, let alone one feeding on another bird.

If I were Calpurnia, I would have immediately recognised the event as an omen. A forewarning of a greater power feeding on a weaker one, perhaps. But my world is far more mundane, and I thought little more about it other than that it was rather an odd thing to see. Only later, when I went into magus mode, did I make a connection with Donald Trump – The Walrus, as I called him in a previous post. A predator if ever there was one, whose seizure of the US presidency was as unprecedented as the appearance of the avian raptor in my garden.

Then another strange thing.

In the opening sequence of The Young Pope, to the accompaniment of Jimi Hendrix’s magical rendition of Bob Dylan’s All Along the Watchtower, Belardo is seen striding past a gallery of old masters. An animated fireball sets buildings in the pictures alight, and finally topples what looks like a waxwork of a former pope. The Pontiff’s face is set in a permanent smirk. He turns and winks at us.

As I was watching the TV last night, I was thinking of writing about the series. I was curious as to why the director choose that song. So I went to the web for a closer look at Dylan’s lyrics:

There must be some way out of here
Said the joker to the thief
There’s too much confusion, I can’t get no relief
Businessmen, they drink my wine
Plowmen dig my earth
None of them along the line know what any of it is worth

No reason to get excited, the thief, he kindly spoke
There are many here among us who feel that life is but a joke
But you and I, we’ve been through that, and this is not our fate
So let us not talk falsely now, the hour is getting late

All along the watchtower, princes kept the view
While all the women came and went, barefoot servants, too

Outside in the distance a wildcat did growl
Two riders were approaching, the wind began to howl

Did Paolo Sorrentino, who created the show, see Dylan’s verse as being about the end of days, or perhaps the corruption of power? Or was he hinting at Belardo’s internal struggle – his Greater Jihad? Is Belardo the joker or the thief?

And then, bang! As if through an act of God, at the very moment that the lyrics appeared on my IPad, Hendrix’s opening riff to All Along the Watchtower came ripping through as the soundtrack of an advert.

I thought back to the pigeon and the predator. I thought of omens and synchronicity. And I started thinking of Trump and the fictional Belardo as two sides of the same coin.

Trump the demagogue, ever present, in your face and in your mind, yet unknowable. What lies within? What drives his narcissism, his ten-year-old petulance? And Belardo, an orphan whose emotional wounds are all too clear, who shrinks from human familiarity and will not allow himself to be seen by the laity. Whose past is blameless. Whose message is uncompromising: no love is more important than our love of God.

Belardo is unknowable too. Like Trump, he’s unpredictable. Not afraid to use the symbols of power to enforce his will. A believer of mystique and mystery. Cruel yet compassionate. Calculating yet impulsive. But all in the service of God, rather than for the greater glory of Donald Trump.

In my fevered imagination, Belardo is the Anti-Trump. A chain-smoking ascetic stands opposite Trump’s teetotal self-indulgence. A pope who is loyal to nobody (not even to God, it seems) and a president-elect who prizes loyalty above all things.

Just occasionally two parallel events seem to act as a counterpoint. The one illuminates the other. Thus, to me at least, the coming of a real-life president and a fictional pope, both seemingly intent on bringing down the watchtowers constructed by their recent predecessors, is a perfect example of what Jung would have called a synchronicity event.

Well, maybe. I’m only up to Episode 4 of The Young Pope, and The Walrus hasn’t even taken the oath of office.

Silly nonsense, I know. It’s only a TV show, whereas The Walrus and his band of oyster-guzzling Carpenters are frighteningly real. But still, contemplating the divine, I find myself wondering how many of America’s religious right embraced Trump’s flagrant immorality and voted for him out of a sincere conviction that he’s the Antichrist – the catalyst who will bring about the final confrontation between good and evil, culminating in the Second Coming of Christ. Enough to swing Pennsylvania and North Carolina perhaps.

Time, no doubt, to don the toga, examine the entrails and scour the sky for signs. Or else to fish out the old bible I haven’t read for many a year, join the Adventists and eagerly await the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.

On second thoughts, I reckon I’ll just get a prescription for Prozac, sit through the final episodes of The Young Pope in a beatific haze, and wait for a real-life Anti-Trump to deliver us from Armageddon.

PS: The remaining episodes did not disappoint. Sorrentino has delivered a masterpiece in nine parts. As for Trump, Episode 1 is pretty gripping, in a bewildering kind of way.

From → Film, Music, Politics, Religion, USA

  1. Nick permalink

    Just wanted to say that I am a Trump supporter, but I found this blog entry fascinating and beautifully written! I really do hope you find him to be a better president that you are expecting. But you very articulately express the concerns many people have, and I think reading this has helped me understand them better. As for the Young Pope, I saw the trailer the other day and the visuals were mesmerizing. They made so much of an impression that I’ve been searching the net for everything I could find. I know what you mean about the dreams!

    • Thank you Nick for your kind words. The least you can say about this year is that we live in different times! I too hope that Trump will be a better president than many people are expecting, because the alternative would be bad for all of us. The Young Pope is up to Episode 6 here in the UK, and it’s still mesmerising. I do hope you’re enjoying it as much as me. Best wishes for the festive season. S

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