Tuesday, 16 August 2011

Is it Finally Worth Getting Sky TV?

Highly recommended, but it is a little on the rude side (and violent side) and it isn't for the easily shocked or faint of heart. Has anyone else been watching it?

No doubt that this series is a bit of Catholic Church bashing courtesy of the page-3-stunner-Papal-Knight himself, Rupert Murdoch, but we shouldn't allow ourselves to be accused of double standards when we do so enjoy the many TV dramas that have done the dirty on King Henry VIII.

There is so much lust, sex, power, intrigue and murder in this series that one wonders whether watchers might leap from their sofas and demand to become Catholic as soon as is humanly possible and, though I'm no film critic, Jeremy Irons (the housewives's new favourite screen Pontiff ) is outstanding in the role of Pope Alexander VI.

Should a drama about the vices of a Pope be made? Probably not, but they've done it anyway. Sadly, the series doesn't seem to be embellishing the dark side of the 'Borgias Family Papacy'. The first two episodes sees the previous Successor of St Peter on his death bed appealing for a rooting out of corruption from the Vatican. Just to show how sincere are his College of Cardinals, mourning at his bedside, the man who was to become Pope Alexander VI buys the Holy Office for himself and, seemingly, his immediate family.

Personally, I was struck by the relatively sympathetic light in which Alexander VI is cast. The viewer gets the sense that he is struck upon his Election and Installation by the "terrible silence of God" and the programme implicitly attributes this experience to his plunging himself into a love affair with a beautiful lady who he keeps in a room under the Vatican down the end of a long tunnel.  It also conveys the overwhelming and terrible isolation and loneliness of the Papacy and the sheer awesome weight of the World upon the Pope's shoulders. The film tells the story that the affair is with a woman who he has just absolved of the sin of abortion and that he seduces her while she is doing her penance in the shelter he has provided her. I hoped that wasn't true, but it reminded me of St Augustine's quote of how "terrible it is to fall into the hands of the Living God". It is quite in our nature to 'see the light' and hide ourselves in the dark very quickly indeed.

But we didn't think the Papacy would get this dark. His son, Cezares Borgias, on discovering an attempt by a Cardinal who hired an assassin to kill Alexander VI following charges made by the Cardinal of simony upon his Election, convinces the assassin to give the poison to the disloyal Cardinal, who drinks the vino and then then dies vomiting. At that point, I found myself on Cezares's side because nobody should commit Petricide and whether the Cardinals like the Pope or think he is a corrupt, megalomaniac sex monster, they should be totally loyal and obedient to the Pope and if you try to kill him then you should take what's coming your way.  It invokes a sense of loyalty in the viewer because this Papacy is being run like something out of Carlitto's Way and everyone who watches that movie loves Carlitto and while the Papacy was corrupt, Pope Alexander VI was not Scarface. No...that was his son.

The film manages, in a strange way, to 'humanise' the Pope, who we only ever see as holy, and his personality flaws, while reminding us every now and then that this really was the Successor of St Peter. The fact that he is deeply enmeshed in a web of earthly pleasures and really quite sinister stuff, such as the son's hiring of assassins to murder his enemies, is tempered by the fact that his Office is the holiest Office on Earth, and when he blessed crowds and acted in his Papal role, he was doing so as the Successor of St Peter, the Vicar of Christ. The Catholic people of the time presumably loved him when he blessed them in the way we love Pope Benedict XVI when he blesses us. The authority and the power (and the glory) is that which comes from on High - it is supernatural - not dependent on his own heroic virtue or absence of it of the Pope and our love for our Popes is hopefully supernatural also, helping us to overlook of their personal faults and failings, especially when we are sinners and we leave a trail of our sins behind us, whether mortal or venial, for which we hope for forgiveness, especially when we draw our last breath: "Okay, so he killed a few people - nobody's perfect!"

I hadn't realised until very recently that there really was a time when Cardinals would literally kill Cardinals in order to accede to the Papal Throne, for totally worldly and seemingly quite pathetic reasons - because the great temporal power that went with being the Vicar of Christ was as attractive to men as being Vicar of Christ, if not more so.  It seems to us the total opposite of the Gospel passage of Our Lord who warns the Apostles while they are arguing among themselves as to who is the most important that whosoever wishes to be 'master must be the servant of all'. Yet, upon receiving the Papal Tiara, that weighty, majestic Crown, Alexander VI appears as a man who has received a poisoned chalice even before his enemies seek his death. It is after this that he feels the "terrible silence of God". The Papacy of Alexander VI is well dodgy, surely among the dodgiest, but it has to be put into its historical context - Popes really were looking over their shoulder all the time because they didn't know when an assassin would come after them with a dagger at the behest of a Cardinal who had only weeks before pledged total obedience to them.

In those days, Catholics didn't expect Priests, Bishops, Religious, Cardinals and even Popes to be Saints. They weren't naive like us and expected them to fall or to have mistresses or be into simony and the rest. That is why the peoples rejoiced exceedingly upon the canonization of one of their countrymen. The men they venerated and trusted were all in Heaven, safe and sound and holy. Saints were and still are those especially graced by God at His choice, not theirs. However, regardless of the motivation for the drama series, it manages to get across that love affairs or no love affairs, power, money, intrigue and the rest subside because it is simply no fun at all being Pope. It is the biggest weight in the World and that is why we rejoice so much when we are fortunate to have a particularly holy, Holy Father. In my opinion, the best Popes are the ones who didn't want the 'job' and would rather have been Vatican librarians. That way, there's less likely to be blood all over the Vatican floors.

So long live Pope Benedict XVI, now gloriously reigning and may the souls of all our beloved Popes, great or grim, through the great mercy of God, rest in Peace.


Felicity said...

Check out the Jeremy Irons interview in the Radio Times.
Some interesting and relevant observations.

Anonymous said...

Watched. Amazed you're recommending. Morally offensive, and unfit for human consumption.

P Standforth said...

Not even worth getting it for that. I'm looking forwards to next year when they switch off the analogue signal and my TV reception goes from four channels down to zip!

Richard Collins said...

Laurence, don't get it for EWTN - it's grim.

The Bones said...


It is 'morally offensive', but it is, sadly, apparently nearly all true.

I had to explain that to my non-Catholic mother.

Anne-Marie said...

Had to laugh at your having to explain to your mother!
She must be wondering whatever you are associated with. I feel for her.

Definitely not good PR.

Physiocrat said...

There IS a canonised Borgia saint - St Francis Borgia.

There were dodgy going-on in Rome in the mid-seventeenth century also.

Anonymous said...


The fact that something is (or rather, was) "true" does not entitle us to watch it. The depictions of sexual activity alone are enough to make this series unwatchable; in what little I saw, there was also blasphemy.

You might find Fr Ripperger FSSP's sermon on "movies" interesting. It's the first sermon linked here.

. said...

" At that point, I found myself on Cezares's side because nobody should commit Petricide and whether the Cardinals like the Pope or think he is a corrupt, megalomaniac sex monster, they should be totally loyal and obedient to the Pope and if you try to kill him then you should take what's coming your way."

I don't wish to condone murder, and I hate to seem accusatory, but this sounds just a little like ultramontanism.

As for avoiding this sort of thing, well. Whether you watch said sex scenes, or avert your eyes or whatever is entirely up to you and your confessor. But we are called to be in the world if not of it, not to hide away in our own little cultural millet. That way lies ghettoisation and a failure in evangelisation.

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