A Sophianic Documentary

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The Puffins of Little Skellig, featured in the show. (Source)

Recently, I had the good fortune of watching Ireland’s Wild Coast, a PBS piece. I must recommend it in the highest possible terms. You can watch the trailer here. From PBS’s description:

Emmy Award-winning wildlife cameraman Colin Stafford-Johnson takes viewers on an authored odyssey along Ireland’s rugged Atlantic coast – the place he chooses to make his home after 30 years spent shooting some of the world’s most celebrated wildlife films.

The show goes far beyond what we’re used to in the usual nature documentaries. Stafford-Johnson’s skill with the camera is peerless. Many of his shots are photographic gems in their own right. His birds are a particular delight to watch. He captures them as they move in stillnessKestrel, Eagle, Swan. Brought together with beautiful music and sensitive narration over the course of two hours, the gorgeous shots elevate each other to the level of true documentary art.

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Irish Swans, photo by Colin Stafford-Johnson. (Source)

Stafford-Johnson couldn’t be more different than, say, David Attenboroughdistant, officious, illustrative, objective, professorial. In a word, British.

Instead, he has given us a distinctly Irish documentary. Every scene is infused with an Irish sensibility. Gone is the slightly stuffy, very British narration conveying little more than scientific data about the life cycle and behavior of various animals; gone the humanitarian appeals for conservation or legislative action on climate change; gone, too, the very American emphasis on spectacle and action. While there’s some information about the creatures that inhabit the west coast of Ireland and the threats they face, it comes across in a very different way. British and American nature shows are prose, and sometimes clunky, technical prose at that. Ireland’s Wild Coast is pure poetry. Or even—dare I say it—a prayer.

At every turn, we can sense Stafford-Johnson’s affection for and intimacy with his subject. For example, Stafford-Johnson rather touchingly says that a stag in rut “has only one thing on his mind: fatherhood.” He admires the tenacity of the humble lamprey; “Any creature that has been around for that long has got life sorted.” He has a wonderful tendency to humanize the animals he films. Surrounded by humpback whales at rest after feeding, he says, “I like to think that other animals can be happy.” In some sense, that’s the whole point of Ireland’s Wild Coast. To show us the joy of the natural world, and help us rekindle our wonder in it.

Likewise, Stafford-Johnson’s environmental concerns are usually framed by a winsome sense of home. These animals are Ireland; they belong to the land and sea; they form an integral part of his home, and must be preserved as such. The Irish sense of place, an obsession that has formed the country’s art, literature, and politics for centuries, colors Stafford-Johnson’s narration in more ways than one. For this film is not just a nature documentary. At the Skelligs, at Great Blasket, at Corcomroe, and in his traditional rowboat, Stafford-Johnson reflects on the Irish people in their history and culture. He wistfully wonders what kind of life the men who built the beehive huts of Skellig Michael might have led. He contemplates the dissolution of the monasteries. And he tells us a few old Irish legends along the way.

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Red Deer Stag, by Colin Stafford-Johnson. Featured in the film. (Source).

The viewer is led to contemplate nature and history through a poetic lens. We become fellow-travelers with Stafford-Johnson as he winds his way up the West Coast on a watery pilgrimage. Any student of Sophiology will recognize in Ireland’s Wild Coast a perfect example of truly Sophianic art. As Michael Martin writes at the beginning of his essential text, The Submerged Reality: Sophiology and the Return to a Poetic Metaphysics:

For sophiology, especially as articulated from the 17th century onward, asks us to attend to the grace of God, his presence, in Creation: a presence which, despite the world’s fallenness, can only be described (in the words of Genesis) as “good.” (3)

That’s precisely the message that Stafford-Johnson most powerfully communicates. Not that the earth is in danger; not that wild animals live interesting and impressive lives; not even that Ireland has a unique and valuable ecosystem on its west coast. Nothing so pragmatic as that. Rather, we are left with the powerful sense of the goodness of creation. We are led to delight in it.

In watching the film—in rewatching it—in writing this piece—I am reminded not only of the lessons of latter-day sophiologists, but of that sophiologist malgré lui, Gerard Manley Hopkins. Specifically, the words of his great sonnet, “God’s Grandeur.”

And for all this, nature is never spent;
There lives the dearest freshness deep down things;
And though the last lights off the black West went
Oh, morning, at the brown brink eastward, springs —
Because the Holy Ghost over the bent
World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings.

No words so perfectly describe the Kestrel of Corcomroe as it hovers, hesitates, and then glides down with Pentecostal grace upon its unsuspecting prey.

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The Kestrel, shot by Colin Stafford-Johnson. It is impossible to understand how beautiful this bird is without seeing it in motion. (Source).

Twin Mashups of Twin Peaks

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“Gotta light?” (Source)

If you’re a Twin Peaks fan like me, you watched what must be the strangest hour of material ever to air on television last Sunday. There are those who are also calling it one of the greatest episodes of any tv show in history. They may be right. In any case, Season Three, Part Eight has lingered with me (as with so many others). I thought I’d play around and make some mashups using footage from the new series and sound from the old. Don’t watch either if you don’t want spoilers. And remember to mute and expand the first video in each.

Here’s one using the “Twin Peaks Theme.”

And here’s one using “Laura Palmer’s Theme.

Enjoy.

You Must Watch “The Keepers”

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Who killed Sister Cathy? (Source).

You must watch The Keepers if you have Netflix. And if you don’t, you should start a subscription or a free trial to watch it. If you are a Catholic, I dare say that you have a duty to do so. I said the same thing about John Michael McDonagh’s Calvary, for much the same reason.

The Keepers tells the story of Sister Cathy Cesnik S.S.N.D., who was found murdered in the woods outside Baltimore in January of 1970. In seven riveting episodes, the series follows the intrepid amateur investigators who have, for years, devoted untold time and energy to solving this case. As private citizens, they have conducted important research into the case that the police should have done years ago. But the series isn’t just a compelling murder mystery (though, at times, it does rise to the level of the best true-crime tv). The Keepers is also a powerful testimony to the grim reality of clerical sex abuse, the corruption that aids the perpetrators, and the strength of the survivors.

If you are content with what I have written thus far and don’t want to risk any spoilers, then please don’t continue reading.

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Basilica of the National Shrine of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Baltimore. (Source)

Sister Cathy had previously worked at a local Catholic girls’ school, Archbishop Keough High School. In 1969, she had discovered that the school chaplain and counselor, Father Joseph Maskell, was sexually abusing the students. In November, she disappeared in the night and was never seen alive again.

The series delves deep into the crimes of the priest, which are many and shocking. Maskell was violent and incredibly manipulative. He was a trained psychologist who preyed on his victims’ emotional and personal weaknesses and conducted deeply invasive psychological and physiological tests on them.

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The affable face of evil. Father Joseph Maskell, c. 1969. (Source).

But, as with so many of these stories, the far more enraging element of it all is the cover-up. And boy is there a cover-up. Notice I used the present tense. The series strongly suggests that the law enforcement agencies of the greater Baltimore area deliberately turned a blind eye to the abuse and failed to properly investigate Sister Cathy’s murder – even today. There are reasons for this that I won’t get into here.

But perhaps more infuriatingly, the Archdiocese of Baltimore not only refused to give an interview to the filmmakers, but a) lied to the filmmakers about the history of complaints against Maskell, b) never mentioned that Maskell was sent to Ireland after a civil suit in the 1990’s, c) has refused to release any of their records related to Father Maskell, and d) repeatedly scuppered legislation to extend the statute of limitations on cases of sexual abuse. The show gets into some of these matters. But the Archdiocese’s reaction since the series premier has been shameful. It has waged a misbegotten social media campaign to smear the series.

Or consider this concatenation of coincidences I happened to just discover.

In the very last episode, we hear from one of Maskell’s first victims. He was an altar boy at Maskell’s parish, and when he complained to his mother, she alerted the Archdiocese. That was 1967. As a result, Fr. Maskell was promptly transferred to Archbishop Keough, where he carried on a covert reign of terror for eight years alongside his similarly perverted assistant, Fr. Neil Magness. Maskell’s secrets started to leak in the 1990’s when two brave victims, former students of Keough, filed a Jane Doe-Jane Roe suit against him and the Archdiocese. During that period, the first victim – that altar boy, then a dentist and family man – was contacted by the Archdiocese. They set up a private meeting led by (then) Monsignor W. Francis Malooly. At that meeting, Malooly allegedly attempted to bribe the victim into keeping quiet, so as not to provide corroboration for the complainant’s claims.

These are allegations. You are free to reject them. What you are not free to dispute is that the meeting between Malooly and the first victim happened. Malooly himself admits it, though he characterizes it rather differently (as you can see in the show). Likewise, you cannot dispute that Monsignor Malooly was later raised to the episcopate by Pope St. John Paul II and is currently serving as the Bishop of Wilmington, Delaware.

Now, a very strange thing happened when I googled Malooly’s name.

The first news item I got was this:

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But if when I clicked on it, I got this error page:

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And what is The Catholic Review? Why, the newspaper of the Archdiocese of Baltimore!

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And if you click on the homepage of the website, you get the same error:

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All of this strikes me as suspicious. There may be a perfectly innocuous reason why the Archdiocese of Baltimore’s newsletter is down at precisely the same time that it’s facing a firestorm over its egregious social media response to these allegations. It doesn’t make a lot of sense why the Archdiocese would bother to do something so drastic. I know so little of technology that I may be fumbling towards nothing here, finding strange connections where there are none.

But that timing. It’s hard to discount.

Ultimately, this is why we need good priests. This is why we need souls given to ministries of reconciliation and reparation to the Sacred and Eucharistic Heart of Jesus. Every abuse of an innocent is one more wound to the Holy Face of Christ. Shows like The Keepers remind us of our guilt, and of our need for salvation. They also remind us of our paramount responsibility towards the defenseless.

I don’t write any of this to scandalize the faithful. I write because Catholics should be furious. We should be filled with the righteous wrath of God that these kinds of abusesboth of innocence and powertake place in our midst. I write to my fellow converts, especially younger ones. We don’t talk about this issue enough, probably because most of us have never had direct contact with it. For us recent converts, the sex abuse crisis can often seem like a phenomenon of past decades, something that happened in stifling parish communities simmering with clericalism, patriarchy, and a ghetto mentality to boot. It is easy as a convert, and particularly as a young convert, to write off the sex abuse crisis (implicitly, if not overtly) as a phenomenon of the hypenated-American-Catholicism of the Northeastern working classes, a faith that was more about social pressure and cultural values than theology, tradition, and mysticism.

And in that, we are wrong. Clerical sex abuse and its cover up are still grievous sins that we have not yet fully grappled with, and whichsadlyI expect will continue to be an issue in the future. Among the many disappointments of this pontificate, perhaps the most bitter is that Pope Francis has proven to have such a poor record when it comes to pedophile priests.

There can be no doubt that those aforementioned -isms and -archies made clerical sexual abuse much harder to prevent, much harder to stop, and much harder to punish. The Keepers gets into some of that, though not as much as it could have. And that’s fine. Instead, it captures and sensitively presents the spiritual, emotional core of the problem. At its heart, The Keepers is about bearing witness. It testifies to the profound failure of the Church to guard its innocents. True, the chief villains are all dead. True, we may never know the full rogues’ gallery of their accomplices. But the horrible pains caused by those villains rippled through hundreds of livesand continue to do so today. And we must never forget it.

Kyrie eleison, Christe eleison, Kyrie eleison.

The Fifteen Most Important Films I Have Watched at UVA

In my time at the University of Virginia, I’m grateful to have received an unofficial aesthetic education parallel to (and sometimes part of) what I was learning in class. As part of a series of somewhat nostalgic posts, I’d like to revisit some of these and perhaps leave you with a few recommendations.

Some of this will be review. A great deal will be personal narrative. “Important” here is not an absolute quality, but rather a relative one. These films have been the most important to me over my four years. Moreover, there will be occasional spoilersthough, as with No. 5 and No. 4 on my list, I don’t spoil very much.

Keeping those disclaimers in mind, let’s begin.

15. What We Do in the Shadows

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I watched this New Zealand horror comedy with a friend (whom I will call here and throughout by the name “Sherman Pine”). And I’m glad I did. What We Do in the Shadows is one of the best depictions of male friendship I have ever seen. Not only is the film by turns hilarious and macabre, it also manages to evoke the unique social pressures facing (post)modern man. It deals with issues of difference, acceptance, competition, and more.

And for anyone with a taste for blood – or at the very least, a good vampire story – the number of playfully subverted classic genre tropes in the film will certainly please.

WWDITS was also my introduction to Taika Waititi, whom some of you may recognize as the director of the upcoming Thor: Ragnarok.

14. Doctor Strange

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Before I came to UVA, I wasn’t a fan of the Marvel universe. While I wasn’t exactly a DC partisan, I never paid much attention to the Avengers. I disliked the only Iron Man movie I had seen, and I had never bothered to watch any of the Thor or Captain America films.

But then came Guardians of the Galaxy, The Avengers: Age of Ultron, and Captain America: Civil War. Those three films and the conversations with friends that they engendered drastically changed my perspective on Marvel.

None of those, however, reached the artistic or philosophical heights of Doctor Strange. The beautifully kaleidoscopic special effects never drown out the excellent performances by Benedict Cumberbatch, Tilda Swinton, Mads Mikkelsen, and Chiwetel Ejiofor. And the plot contains a number of religious themes. It’s one of the few superhero movies I’ve seen that embraces a quasi-Christian worldview (the climax involves a kind of harrowing of hell).

In short, I guess I can now say that I’m a fan of the Marvel universe. Doctor Strange is just the best reason why.

13. Silence

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Wrenching, problematic, and beautiful, Silence is the only Martin Scorsese film on this list. I saw it with friends from one of my oratorical societies. We all went in with different perspectives, and came out with different reactions. Mostly, I just felt numb. I couldn’t find any words at all, but like Job, felt it necessary to “lay mine hand upon my mouth” in awe (Job 40:4 KJV).

I could probably write at length about the various theological issues, cultural questions, and cinematic gems that the film poses. I won’t. I’ll merely say that, while I found it emotionally crushing, I appreciate that art doesn’t abide by the rules we try to set it. Good Christian art – even Sophianic art – never loses sight of the essential brokenness of our fallen world. If anything, perhaps the great take-away from Silence is something like the advice I was once given by a very holy priest: “Never despair of the mercy of God.”

I’ll add briefly that, as someone who wants to focus on early modern Catholicism, I found the film a helpful occasion to raise awareness about the history of Christian persecution in Japan. The reconstructed world of 17th century Japan is sumptuously simple. Every aesthetic note is perfectly put. It will almost certainly be remembered as Scorsese’s masterpiece.

12. Mulholland Drive

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We move from Silence to “Silencio.”

Last Fall, I decided to watch Twin Peaks. That process entailed a general inquiry into the works of David Lynch, whom I had long admired. I told Sherman Pine, who shares my appreciation of Lynch, that I had yet to see the director’s famous neo-noir Mulholland Drive, and he was kind enough to watch it with me.

I still don’t understand this movie. I won’t pretend to. But boy, is it a ride.

I’ll add that Lynch really smartly contrasts different musical styles, which mirrors the doubling in the plot (but I won’t spoil those details). I know of no other director who is so committed to staged performance as a portrayal of themes. Particularly as they relate to the underlying tensions of sex and gender present in much of his work.

11. Days of Heaven

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My first Terrence Malick movie, but not the only one on this list. Watching Days of Heaven was like stepping into an Edward Hopper or Andrew Wyeth painting. Like a few other films – say, August: Osage County or NebraskaDays of Heaven stands as one of the quietly towering cinematic monuments of Midwestern life.

I also happened to watch the film with a friend (the aforementioned Sherman Pine) wile I was enrolled in an Anthropology class called “Language and Cinema,” which meant that I was particularly attuned to the way Malick crafts his story through sound. No other film that I know of uses such a wide range of realistic sounds so artfully. You can’t hear all the dialogue, and what you can hear, you can’t always understand. The voice-over narration is spoken by a child in the working-class accent of 1916 Chicago.

Of course, being a Malick film, the visuals are also gorgeous. A swarm of locusts is an inherently mythic phenomenon, but I think that only Malick could make them as beautiful as the sunlight they block and the fields they devour.

10. Do the Right Thing

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Because I was in that “Language and Cinema” class, I had the opportunity to watch several films I had never seen before. A few worth mentioning include Zoot Suit, the 1939 edition of Stagecoach, and Smoke Signals. Of all of the films we watched, one that really stood out to me as an exceptional piece of art was Spike Lee’s famous 1989 movie, Do the Right Thing.

The script offers a remarkable variety of linguistic turns that make it a rich field of social analysis. The film also impressed me as a bitingly relevant commentary on racism and policing. As someone with no prior awareness of the issues surrounding police brutality in 1980’s New York City, the movie made me want to learn more about a dark and overlooked chapter of our history. Given the recent spate of police brutality incidents over the last few years, it seems to me that more people should return to this film, a movie that carefully treads the line between the two social values on Radio Raheem’s fists: love and hate.

9. Becket

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Becket is not the greatest Catholic film ever made, but it comes close. Gorgeously fabricated costumes, historically-conscious sets, a richly Romanesque liturgical sensibility, copious use of Gregorian Chant, and an excommunication scene that thrills the cockles of every cold Traditionalist heartwhat’s there not to love?

Beyond these largely aesthetic factors, Becket has two unique strengths. First, the movie lacks any of the problematic theology or complicated nuances that has marked more artistically impressive Catholic films (such as Silence and Calvary). Of course, there’s nothing wrong with art engaging in these questions, but occasionally a more affirming film can be helpful. Becket, like A Man for All Seasons, manages to unite faithfulness to the Church’s teachings with genuine artistry. The titular bishop often defends “the Honor of God” against a rapacious monarch. And that brings us to the movie’s second great strength: its depiction of a friendship gone awry. This is a theme that isn’t treated as often as it should be in movies.

Of course, I may be mistaking my own reading of the film and its objective strengths. I first saw Becket when I was in a similar situation. A friend had quickly and completely become an enemy, and I could relate to St. Thomas’s exasperated struggle against a corrupt king.

And on top of that, it’s about St. Thomas Becket, who is one of the coolest British saints.

8. The Witch

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If you know me personally, you know that I adore The Witch (aka The VVitch). It may well be one of the finest horror movies ever made. It features all the tropes of early modern witch lore, a soundtrack that evokes the terrors of the Puritan frontier, and dialogue in 17th century dialect (my jam). Its understated visual style allows the actors’ performances to shine through. And the goat! The goat! Just look at it!

This film rekindled my interest in the tradition of horror in New England, which I’ve blogged about before in relation to Lovecraft. It was also the first horror movie I had ever seen in a cinema. The Witch also established A24 in my mind as one of the leaders of the new horror, a genre trend that I hope it continues with the upcoming It Comes at Night.

I consider The Witch to be the greatest Protestant film ever made. Yes, the Satanic Temple really liked it. Yes, A24 consciously hyped the film’s satanic themes as part of its publicity efforts. Fine. But the movie’s horror works by letting us into the world of Puritan New England, a world where the devil is real, witches kill babies, and the livestock aren’t always what they seem. And we are meant to sympathize with these people. They’re not the dupes of McCarthyesque hysteria. They’re the victims of supernatural evil.

I also read The Witch as a cinematic meditation on original sin in its Calvinist interpretation. Everything in the movie happens because of the father’s pride. He’s unwilling to repent and submit to the colonial community, and as a result, the whole family is expelled into the wilderness. The subsequent deterioration and damnation mirrors our own condition under Adam.

Also, if you like Goya’s Black Paintings, you’ll really like The Witch.

7. Herz aus Glas

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I saw Herz aus Glas (Heart of Glass) while on a Nietzsche kick in my second year. It messed with my head and made me want to read obscure Continental writers. I’ve always seen it as somehow quintessentially German. At the very least, Herz aus Glas introduced me to the remarkable oeuvre of Werner Herzog, who is my favorite European nihilist director. Not quite as grim as Béla Tarr, not quite as operatically depraved as Lars von Trier.

The film itself tells the story of a glass-producing village in Bavaria that descends into madness after the death of its chief glassblower. A highland prophet delivers cryptic messages throughout. The conclusion comes out of nowhere. At the end of the day, it’s probably a commentary on the German experience of capitalism and fascism, but who knows? Don’t question it.

6. Curse of the Golden Flower

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I first saw Curse of the Golden Flower with fourth-year friends when I was a lowly first-year. For me, it will always be a symbol of the similarly golden days between Spring finals and graduation.

The film struck me then as one of the most visually striking movies I had ever seen. The highly stylized recreation of Tang Dynasty China probably speaks to that part of me that also takes a guilty pleasure in the orientalist paintings of Gérôme and Delacroix. Each shot is saturated with a carefully chosen array of colors. The costumes and set design work together to fashion a stunning aesthetic experience. Think Beijing Olympics Opening Ceremony, but with more swords and cloth-of-gold.

Everyone to whom I have showed it since has agreed with my own assessment. The action thrills, and all the actors put in excellent performances. I’d also highly recommend Curse of the Golden Flower to fans of Game of Thrones. The palace intrigue that makes up the bulk of the plot resonates with much of what goes on in Westeros.

5. The Great Beauty

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When I started composing this list, The Great Beauty was down several places. But the longer I’ve thought about it, the higher I’ve ranked this film by Paolo Sorrentino. Readers of this blog will know that I kinda have a thing for his recent HBO limited series, The Young Pope. That show prompted me to look at Sorrentino’s cinematic work. The Great Beauty was the first of his movies that I watched. I’ve had the chance to watch it twice, and I may go back for round three in the next few weeks.

The film depicts the life of Jep Gambardella, a fictional Italian author who moves through the boozy and hedonistic world of the Roman intelligentsia. We see his interactions with other writers, strippers, a floundering performance artist, the wreck of the Costa Concordia, and more. He searches for the titular “grande bellezza,” only to find it after encountering love, suffering, and simplicity.

There isn’t much plot, but there is a whole lot of character development. Ensconced in a party lifestyle, Jep can’t produce any more books; he feels stuck. When he receives word that his first love has died, he goes through a period of intense introspection. As he looks back upon his life, he realizes that he’s lost any meaningful sense of joy. He’s caught in a malaise of memory. Only the wise words of a Mother Theresa-like nun whom everyone refers to as “the Saint” unlocks his situation.

She asks, “Do you know why I only eat roots?” Jep replies that he doesn’t know. She turns back, and without even a smile, says to him, “Because roots are important.” The terse, spiritual one-liners of The Great Beauty are typical Sorrentino fare. Similar lines appear throughout The Young Pope.

I first saw the film in February. I’ve been ruminating on it ever since. It has stayed with me and fermented in my soul like few other films. I can’t help but relate to the protagonistand not just because we share a similar sleep cycle. Jep Gambardella, played masterfully by Tony Servillo, strikes me as a character who could relate to the strange feelings of nostalgia and loss that I’ve had in the Spring of my fourth year. So much so, that along with the next two films, I consider it one of the triad of movies that has defined my final year at the University.

Also, the music in this film is totally gorgeous, and has given me a renewed appreciation of the Holy Minimalists. The soundtrack features both of the songs I described in a recent post on the Light of Tabor and Lent.

So go see it, because it really is too great a beauty to pass up.

4. The Mission

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Although I had heard of The Mission years ago, I only became really determined to watch it as the result of a class I took last fall, “Reformation Europe.” I’m glad I did. It also had a profound impact on me. I don’t think I know of a Catholic film that more perfectly depicts the difficult realities of balancing missionary work and the demands of Christian peace. The tension between the Jesuits played by Robert de Niro and Jeremy Irons is only undone through the reconciliation implicit in the climactic scene. It is the Eucharist, and the Eucharist alone, which can effect true peace – especially in the face of martyrdom.

A few ancillary personal notes. First, as an aspiring early modernist, I found that the film disposed me to take a much deeper interest in colonial South America. It also made me take a much more serious look into Christian pacifism. The best art should do that. It captures the imagination and lead us on from the beautiful to the true or the good. Secondly, “Gabriel’s Oboe” is also, for my money, the most uplifting music from any of the films I have listed in this post. Finally, it confirmed Jeremy Irons in my mind as the Most Catholic Non-Catholic currently acting in Hollywood (see Brideshead Revisited, The Borgias).

3. The Tree of Life

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For years, friends told me that I had to watch The Tree of Life. That it was an incredible piece of art. That it could never be adequately described. That it might just induce a religious experience.

Having watched it recently, I concur. The film is too vast to try and capture in any depth here. I’ll simply say that it is the most sophianic piece of cinema I have ever seen, and that if I have any time in the future, I may try to analyze it from a sophiological perspective. But not without one more viewing.

2. Into Great Silence

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For a while, I made it a practice to watch Into Great Silence at least once per semester. I believe I first saw the film in the Fall of my First Year, and in that sense, it was my first real introduction to monastic spirituality. The simplicity and manifest holiness of the Carthusians in the movie captured my imagination. Their silence spoke to me.

Nothing happens. Insofar as there is a narrativeand I must emphasize, there really isn’t oneit’s the first year in the monastery of a newly-professed novice. But we don’t focus on him. Instead, we watch many of the monks as they go about life. We are brought into the rhythms of their own silence, the particular ways they fill it with prayer and work. When the monks do speak, they often drop deep little lines. The only interview in the documentary is conducted with an ancient, blind monk. At one point, he says,

The past, the present, these are human. In God there is no past. Solely the present prevails. And when God sees us, He always sees our entire life. And because He is an infinitely good being, He eternally seeks our well-being. Therefore there is no cause for worry in any of the things which happen to us.

These words are good theology, spoken by a saint, given for our practical sanctification. Or consider an even better, briefer quip spoken by a monk at recreation:

The symbols are not to be questionedwe are.

Words to live by.

If you are Catholic, the hauntingly beautiful scene that depicts the Carthusian night office will make you want to go to adoration at midnight. If you are not religious, the film will make you take the ascetic life more seriously. And if you are pondering the Catholic life, I can’t think of a better cinematic introduction to the Church’s spirituality.

Well, I suppose there’s Bishop Barron’s Catholicism series. But that’s a show, not a film.

  1. Baraka

Baraka

Without a doubt, this film has defined my time at UVA. I discovered Baraka by accident, and it stirred something in me that has never quite settled.

One part nature documentary, one part travelogue, one part blistering social criticism, Baraka can be summed up in one word: transcendent. Everything in the film points towards what is beyond it, towards what it dare not express in words. There is no dialogue. The central theme is that ritual and nature connect mankind with the mystery of his existence, and it proceeds to show how the way we break, deform, and reconstruct ritual in modernity has led to untold suffering. The film suggests that a return to the ancient wisdom of religion can restore the meaning we have lost in the 20th century.

Whether you buy into that traditionalist interpretationor its postmodernist, ecofeminist, anti-colonialist, or anti-capitalist variantsthe film will stun you. Director Ron Fricke cut his teeth as director of photography for Koyaanisqatsi (1982) and director of Chronos (1985), the film’s spiritual antecedents. He would later go on to direct a sequel to Baraka, another beautiful film called Samsara (the featured image at the top of this article is a still from that movie). While all are worth seeing, Baraka is the best of the lot. It has the most coherent spiritual vision, the best music, and the most striking visuals.

I encountered Baraka my third year, at a time in my life when I was under tremendous personal stress, as I alluded to in my discussion of Becket. Maybe that slight desperation opened me to a film of Baraka‘s sensibilities. I don’t know. But I don’t think I watched a film while at UVA that more profoundly shaped my worldview and aesthetic. I’d say that everyone who studies or practices religion should see it, but that would be a lie. Everyone should see itperiod.

Notes on the Music of “The Young Pope”

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The Prime Minister of Greenland gives the Pope a record of Nada’s “Senza un Perche.” And then dances to it. Alone. While the credits role.

In a previous post, I discussed the visual aesthetic of Paolo Sorrentino’s new drama, The Young Pope. Today, I’d like to examine another facet of the show’s artistry: the soundtrack. The Young Pope‘s music has occasioned a few admiring or even acerbic comments, but little serious inquiry.

Although I am by no means an expert in musical theory, I know enough to realize that few shows have ever had quite the musical mix that The Young Pope has. And since I have a Spotify account, I have the luxury of perusing the entire official Young Pope playlist. A few types of music emerge. I would like to examine these in turn.

The Original Score

Is relatively unremarkable. Ramin Djawadi has given us better music in HBO’s other great recent dramas, Game of Thrones and Westworld. But Lele Marchitelli’s “Cardinals” has a delightful airiness, the sense of a certain holy whimsy about it. It’s happy music.

Techno

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“Levo,” by Recondite

The show is very European, and incorporates a great degree of the continent’s signal, stereotypical genre.

Michael Baumann over at The Ringer offers a great analysis of one of the songs, “Levo,” by Recondite, a techno artist from Germany. Baumann notes that Sorrentino “folds ‘Levo’ into Lenny Belardo’s character the way Prokofiev folded the French horn into the Wolf’s.” The song is deployed at moments that reveal critical new plot developments that are really the Pope at his purest.

Sorrentino also deploys Techno at moments that seem particularly surreal; the twitching scratch of a beat in Labradford’s “By Chris Johnston, Craig Markva, Jamie Evans” opens the series with Lenny’s nightmare Urbi et Orbi. The piece lends the slow-mo cinematography and almost sculptural quality of the characters the air of a dance. It balances the stillness and motion of the moment, in keeping with Sorrentino’s neomodernist aesthetic.

And yes, I know it’s technically post-rock. But it sounds close enough to Techno to work in this category.

Pop Singles

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This song will get stuck in your head.

Lenny Belardo is an American, and the show is set in the near future. It only makes sense that Sorrentino adds pop to the aural texture of several of his key moments.

A few songs come to mind: Nada’s “Senza un Perché,” Lotte Kerstner’s cover of “Halo,” by Beyoncé, LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” Flume’s “Never Be Like You,” and that cover of “All Along the Watchtower” that marks the opening sequence. Of these, two are particularly worth closer analysis: the covers of “Halo” and “All Along the Watchtower.”

By choosing Kerstner’s slow, soulful cover over Beyoncé‘s original version, Sorrentino draws our attention to the singularly religious inflection of the lyrics:

Everywhere I’m looking now
I’m surrounded by your embrace
Baby, I can see your halo
You know you’re my saving grace
You’re everything I need and more
It’s written all over your face
Baby, I can feel your halo
Pray it won’t fade away

The song frames love as a religious experience, an encounter with a divine other. We can read here the central (albeit de-eroticized) element of Lenny’s spiritual vision; the way he ties together the love of his parents and his belief in God. And the luminescent lyrics work perfectly for the glowing landscape and figures that we see in Africa and Colorado. The lyrics perfectly match the Pope’s solitary walk through the sleeping journalists on the plane:

Hit me like a ray of sun
Burning through my darkest night
You’re the only one that I want
Think I’m addicted to your light
I swore I’d never fall again
But this don’t even feel like falling
Gravity can’t forget
To pull me back to the ground again
Feels like I’ve been awakened
Every rule I had you break it
The risk that I’m taking
I’m never gonna shut you out

The language here practically describes the scene. We are on the plane at night, and Lenny, the only one whom the journalists want to see, has arrived to watch them sleep. Their flight is quite literally defying gravity. As the Pope breaks his rule about meeting journalists, he finds one awake. It’s a risk, but it rewards him with a moment of admiring affirmation.

And we don’t need to consciously apprehend the meaning of the words as we watch the scene to feel their impact. Aesthetically, the song’s dreamy tremor fits well with the soft-focus visuals that Sorrentino uses in that scene and throughout the series.

Secondly, Sorrentino opens most of the episodes with a sequence of the Pope passing nine paintings and a sculpture of Pope St. John Paul II. An instrumental cover of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in most iterations of the sequence. The song’s connotations of cultural revolution represent Lenny’s monumental program of change and remind us of his parents’ own ideological leanings. The irony of the song pairs well with the irony of the visuals, as Lenny’s shooting star disrupts the order of the paintings.

Holy Minimalism

For me, the most striking addition to the repertoire is the heavy use of the Holy Minimalists. Arvo Pärt, Henryk Górecki, and John Tavener, some of the most respected members of the movement, all appear in the playlist.

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The Holy Minimalists: (l-r) Arvo Part, John Tavener, Henryck Gorecki

The Holy Minimalists were a group of composers active from the 1970’s whose work sought to reinvigorate more traditional sacred forms. Often by working in conversation with Eastern Christian formsPärt, like the late Tavener, is a convert to Eastern Orthodoxy, while Górecki was a Polish Catholicthe Holy Minimalists sought to capture a sense of the eternal in their inventive and dissonant work. Listening to their music, one has the sense of peering through the cracks of our broken human existence to glimpse yawning chasms of infinite glory.

No fewer than 12 works by the Holy Minimalists are featured in the show’s official playlist. I’d like to focus on two pieces, deployed in juxtaposition at one of the most climactic moments in the entire series.

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“Knock, knock.”

As Pius XIII enters the Sistine Chapel to address his assembled cardinals, he is borne aloft by attendants on a Sedia Gestatoria. John Tavener’s haunting dirge for Princess Diana, “Song for Athene,” seems to float in along with him. But just as the climax is about to resolve into a peaceful, triumphant harmony (the part of the song that evokes the Resurrection and the Life eternal), Lenny opens his eyesand the music stops instantly. It’s a chilling moment. In that second, before he even starts to speak, we understand the gist of what is about to follow.

The music only begins again with a single, unnerving note on the piano, when the Pope directs their attention to a mysterious door that has appeared at the other end of the chapel. He continues his dark (and, if we’re being honest, rather magnificent) speech for nearly another eight minutes. The lone note is joined by others, and becomes Arvo Pärt‘s “Lamentabile – ” before concluding with the humiliation of Cardinal Voiello.

I think Sorrentino relies so heavily on the Holy Minimalists in his aural aesthetic to suggest another element of Lenny’s spiritual vision. Throughout the series, Lenny is able to deliver profound wisdom through quiet, concise statements. Simplicity is the garment of his unique insights. And the Holy Minimalists sought to re-present the sacred tradition of Christian music for modernity; their project is consonant with Lenny’s.

It’s also worth pointing out that, in addition to the Holy Minimalists, Sorrentino deploys a few works by regular, ordinary, profane minimalist John Adams (those of you who played Civ IV growing up will recognize his “Shaker Loops: III. Loops and Verses“).

In Sum

I know I’m missing a few things, since the playlist is long, and I’m not a musicologist. But that very fact points to the multiple layers of meaning that Paolo Sorrentino has inscribed in his rich soundtrack. I encourage everyone to give the playlist a serious and attentive listen-through, possibly several. There are gems in there. And if you can go through it (or the show) without getting “Senza un Perché” stuck in your head, you’re doing it wrong.

“The Young Pope” as Neomodernist Television

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There are many ways to analyze HBO’s new limited series, The Young Pope. I’ve read comparisons to Twin Peaks and House of Cards. Some of my friends take it as a commentary on contemporary church politics. Others simply revel in its lush costuming and surreal sense of humor. There’s truth in all of these approaches, but I think none come close enough to identifying the show’s real aesthetic: Neomodernism.

Neomodernism is a small school of visual art created by Andre Durand and Armando Alemdar. A critical response to postmodernist dominance of the art scene in the last decades of the 20th century, Neomodernists explore “spiritual and aesthetic values in art,” as their Manifesto states. Neomodernist painters seek “a new relationship with works of art from the 15th to the 20th century.” They focus on the creative renewal of tradition. And they do so by adhering to nineteen criteria that shape their work. Here they are, lifted from Armando Alemdar’s website:

The Criteria

  • A Neomodernist picture manifests the Idea in the Hegelian sense meaning the Absolute, the spiritual presence in a work of art.
  • A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.
  • The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.
  • Every element in a Neomodernist picture is justified in terms of the whole composition.
  • A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith.
  • A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.
  • A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.
  • A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.
  • A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.
  • A Neomodernist picture presents scientific principles aesthetically (La Flagellazione, Piero Della Francesca).
  • A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.
  • A Neomodernist work of art is tactile.
  • Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.
  • A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.
  • Both figurative and abstract Neomodernist pictures pronounce “painterly” values.
  • Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.

Clearly, these criteria are tailored for the plastic artsand painting in particular. Among the various examples of proto-Neomodernist that Alemdar draws from art history, all are paintings. Yet I would contend that many of the aforementioned criteria would work with any art form that places at its aesthetic center the tableau. There has been much critical writing on film (and by extension, television) as a primarily visual medium. Directors are primarily distinguished by the nuances of their visual style, rather than the way they use sound. We can, therefore, apply some of the same criteria to film that we use with painting.

And The Young Pope is a perfect example. Director Paolo Sorrentino relishes the visual component of his work. That tendency comes through powerfully in The Young Pope. While the show doesn’t fit all of the nineteen criteria, it does seem to play with many of them. Let’s go through a few:

“A Neomodernist picture has links to the works of art that preceded it and / or antiquity.”

The show isn’t an unambiguous endorsement of Catholic tradition, but it does engage with it. The narrative of TYP centers on a Pope who re-establishes several ancient customs, even as he closes himself off from the world. On the aesthetic level, however, the show’s links to the past are constantly re-emphasized. The costumes reflect sartorial tendencies that largely disappeared after the Second Vatican Council. The Pope placidly examines two works of Renaissance art alongside his confidant and master of ceremonies, Gutierez. In the course of the story, both paintings turn out to reflect the two characters’ inner demons. Another work of art, the Venus of Willendorf, is at the heart of one Cardinal’s sins of lust. Lenny invokes Kubrick and Banksy to justify his isolation. One of the show’s most riveting scenes takes place in a massive reproduction of the Sistine Chapel. And of course, there’s that intro, which features 10 pieces of art with thematic significance for Lenny Belardo’s troubled pontificate. Sorrentino ensures that art and film history saturate The Young Pope.

Neomodernist painters do the same. Andre Durand’s 2000 painting “Et in Arcadia Ego” is a good representative of this quality.

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The painting reworks the classical theme of the Arcadian shepherds most famously portrayed by Poussin. But instead of a tomb bearing the titular inscription, we are shown Damien Hirst’s “Away from the Flock,” a dead sheep preserved in formaldehyde. Durand was present at the Tate Modern when it was vandalizedanother artist poured black ink into the tank and declared that the resultant piece was called “Black Sheep.” The experience conveyed to him a strong sense of the decline of art; a celebration of death, negation, and fragmentation rather than life, affirmation, and the integrated whole. The vibrantly alive human nudewhich, for Neomodernists, is the central axis of meaning in artat the center of the piece contrasts sharply with the dead animal. He is among others in an easy communion; the sheep is isolated. He is subject to decay, as the other figures suggest the waning of a long life. But better to live with others subject to the vicissitudes of time than to exist alone in a state of constant, deathly preservation. In short, we are shown the difference between a living tradition and a deadening individuality. The piece thus serves to critique the anti-traditional death-wish implicit in so much postmodern artespecially Damien Hirst’s work.

This brings us to another of the criteria:

“The nude or the symbol of the nude is the basis of a Neomodernist picture.”

Compared to many other HBO productions, The Young Pope is positively modest. But there is some nudity, particularly at moments of thematic or narrative consequence. When it occurs, it’s often desexualized. The opening shot of the series, the famous and bizarre “baby pyramid” in Venice, fixates on nude infants. Esther, tasked with seducing the Pope, prays in the nude. Lenny is occasionally shown naked. Some of the only memories he retains of his parents take place in a peaceful landscape, and all three members of the family are more or less stripped. The warm glow of the sun on their youthful flesh speaks to an implicit, Edenic innocence. And of course, there are the scenes of Cardinal Dussolier’s (rather perverse) sexual pleasures.

While the nude isn’t as central to the show’s artistic vision in the way that it is in Neomodernist painting, the use of occasional nudity underscores the main theme of the series: loneliness and power. The Young Pope is deeply, principally concerned with how people try to cope with loneliness, and how loneliness interacts with power. The Vatican is a particularly convenient setting for that exploration, as it combines a culture of celibacy and the absolute power of a priest-king. The human body, when it appears, demonstrates some of the ways that loneliness can be overcome. There is eroticism, but eroticism subject to the demands of the spirit.

We can say much the same of Andre Durand’s work. While the nude looms as a much larger figure in his oeuvre than in Sorrentino’s, certain formal and tonal similarities remain. Observe the placement of the bodies in Durand’s “Pietà,” 2006. Compare the image with the parental flash-back scenes in Episode 7 or Episode 8.

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Two related criteria:

“A Neomodernist approach to religious subject matter is detached and philosophical, never an affirmation of faith. A Neomodernist treatment of political or historical subject matter is detached and philosophical, never propaganda.”

It would be impossible to say that The Young Pope is “an affirmation of faith.” Pius himself seems to struggle with belief in God, even in light of the miracles he (probably) works. Theology, though touched upon occasionally, is secondary to matters of Church discipline and ethics. The few moments of genuine spirituality usually come in short, nearly-corny, quietly profound statements (“Under all that ice, could be God,” “He’s lifting the weight of God”). It avoids the twin evils of the ugly liberal partisanship that has marked so many Vatican stories and the preachy conservative propagandizing that can characterize religious film. Instead, we’re given a strangely human story that confounds both sides—even in spite of the show’s manifest popularity among young, traditional Catholics. Lenny may be a saint, but his holiness is thoroughly ambiguous, weighed down by a number of unpleasant personality traits. This puts any viewer (perhaps especially the Catholic one) in an uncomfortable position.

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Neomodernist art should make us uncomfortable, too. Like The Young Pope, Durand’s Neomodernism resists easy classification. He infuses a basically realistic idiom with surreal exaggerations, obvious anachronisms, and intrusions of the fantastic. Moreover, Durand’s work is shot through with eroticism (including homoeroticism), even when he’s depicting sacred subjects. Observe his “Annunciation at Didling,” completed in 2001. Anyone who’s watched most of the series might be forgiven for remembering the utterly bizarre introduction of Tonino Pettola on an Italian hillside.

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Or his rendition of “St. Eustace.”

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These paintings, and others like them, are not set forth by the artist to prove any point. They are not didactic, and they don’t attempt, as the Eastern icons do, to bear the glorious presence of their subjects. Instead, they are a system of symbols arranged with a philosophical detachment.

Moving on:

“A Neomodernist artist must have sound drawing abilities and a command of the other traditional academic disciplines, such as perspective.”

Sorrentino’s technical mastery is evident throughout. Let’s take perspective. I give you:

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Note again how often the vanishing point centers on the Pope; that is, on the human body. Other examples could be cited.

The next relevant criterion can also be dealt with in a similarly brief manner. Durand and Alemdar write,

“A Neomodernist picture concentrates the soul in the eye.”

The hotel scene immediately comes to mind. When Lenny asks the prostitute for her proof of the existence of God, she whips out a camera, snaps a photo, and says, “Your eyes.” She’s not making the old creationist argument from the 90’s. She’s talking about the human soul, which becomes manifest to us in the human faceand preeminently through the eyes.

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The scene is particularly interesting because it is, to the best of my knowledge, the only moment in the series when Lenny allows himself to be photographed. He is disarmed by the prostitute’s beauty, and unsettled by the truth buried in her simple words. But I digress.

Next up:

“A Neomodernist work of art is emblematic rather than psychological.”

I only include this because it’s the one that definitely doesn’t fit TYP. The whole point of the show is psychological exploration, as I’ve already mentioned.

“A Neomodernist figurative or abstract picture has Albertian depth, space and light, never stressing the flatness of the canvas surface but exploring its limitless depths.”

This quality comes through in the ways that The Young Pope makes use of space. Every landscape is treated in such a way that its full aesthetic potential is maximized. This is true of both internal and external backgrounds. For example:

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See also the photo at the top of this post.

“A Neomodernist work of art hightens the sense of newness, regardless of when it was made.”

This is harder to pin down, so I won’t dwell on it. I’ll only refer you to the many reviews that note the show’s peculiarity. People can tell there’s never been anything quite like it on television before. The show’s novelty is part of the reason people kept watching.

“Simplicity of form is Neomodernist.”

Again, a few stills will suffice.

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There are, of course, plenty of moments in The Young Pope where simplicity is anything but the order of the day. Yet not all of Durand’s own work seems rooted in a “simplicity of form.”

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“Arachne,” 2002.

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“Giordano Bruno Burning,” 2000.

So perhaps the quality is malleable.

“A Neomodernist work of art has movement and stillness simultaneously.”

This is another quality that’s difficult to express, but there are scenes that strike a nice balance between the two. One is the frequently alluded-to address to the cardinals. Another is the first homily to the faithful. Yet a third might be the banal advice of the dead popes. Or the (oh-so-Italian) conclusion to Episode 4. Or even the confrontation with Sister Antonia. Probably more.

Durand achieves this quality in several pieces, but I’ll only refer to his 2006 paintings “Coronation of the Virgin” and “St. John the Evangelist.”

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“Neomodernism precedes and supersedes post-modernism.”

I’m genuinely unsure of whether this applies to The Young Pope. Yes, Pius XIII is intent on reforming the Church back to its more “prohibitive” days, before the rot of postmodernism set in. But he’s nothing if not the Byronic hero that achieved new, wider, and stranger expressions in postmodern literature. So I guess I’m torn.

Regardless, I’d argue that there is sufficient reason to believe that Paolo Sorrentino’s new show is the first example of Neomodernist television. Since The Young Pope has just been renewed for a second season, it remains to be seen whether that aesthetic will persist across the larger arc of the story.

Until then, just enjoy this beautiful work of cinematic art.