As unsexy as the storyline sounds, Fernando Meirelles’ new Netflix film Two Popes is the latest example of an unlikely pop culture trope having a moment right now: priests are hot stuff.
In Two Popes, cardinals from all over the world meet in Rome to select a predecessor to the recently dead Pope John Paul II. The dramatised re-enactment of real-life 2005 papal conclave uses actual news footage and, in a wonderful twist, soundtracks the scene with ABBA’s 1976 Dancing Queen.
Much like the titular character from the smash hit song, it seems clergymen on screen are similarly having the time of their lives.
Meirelles’ film (with Anthony Hopkins as Pope Benedict and Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis) is far from the first on-screen representation of priesthood.
We could trace this trend back to the success of the 2016 TV series The Young Pope starring chocolate box handsome Jude Law as Lenny Belardo (Pius XIII), the first American Pope in history.
At over $45 million, Paolo Sorrentino show was the most expensive Italian TV production in history and starred Hollywood heavyweights like Law, Diane Keaton and, in the subsequent follow-up The New Pope, John Malkovich.
Sorrentino’s series signalled that not only was the Vatican an interesting subject of investigation but that it was precisely this reverence bestowed on it that also shrouded it in mystery and intrigue for the general public.
This intrigue with the Church also played out in a very different way in the latest season of Phoebe Waller-Bridge’s award-winning Fleabag.
Known for its darkly comic sensibilities and frank exploration of sex, the series introduced Irish actor Andrew Scott as ‘Hot Priest’, the flirty but seemingly unattainable love interest of Waller-Bridge’s sex-addicted Fleabag.
It is precisely the impossibility of their situation and the shackles of clerical celibacy that further accentuates the electric sexual chemistry between them.
The trope of the “hot priest” also pops up in the detective drama Grantchester featuring hunky British actor James Norton as a sleuthing vicar.
When the vicar isn’t solving crimes in the shady village of Grantchester as the actual local detective’s right hand man, he’s locking lips with beautiful heiress Amanda (Morven Christie).
There’s also the sweet Father Peter (Peter Campion) from teen sitcom Derry Girls set in a Catholic girls secondary school and the weed-smoking Father Brah (Rene Gube) in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend.
And let’s not forget Ethan Hawke’s wonderfully nuanced performance as a minister questioning his faith in Paul Shrader’s 2018 film First Reformed.
This trend in the clergy seems born out of a curiosity in the intensely guarded and regimented life of churchmen who occupy a curious position as public-facing counsellors but do not themselves engage in romantic relationships.
The vow of celibacy is often used as a creative narrative obstacle for sexy sitcoms that plays off the tension between forbidden desire and loyalty to the cloth.
But it also suggests that audiences are trying to comprehend how faith is able to survive in our current socio-political climate.
While many of these creative explorations are of course light-hearted entertainment, they are all anchored by a central curiosity in the Church.
Which leads me to ask: in this time of extreme wealth discrepancy, devastating environmental crisis, and growing social unrest, what role does the Church have?