Paolo Sorrentino, the director behind The Great Beauty and Il Divo, has returned with The Young Pope, a 10-episode limited series on HBO. Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando and Javier Cámara play leading roles in the story of a fictional and unconventionally young American pontiff.
Since October, a significant amount of hype has been surrounding the show. This should not come as a surprise, as The Young Pope, like its protagonist, stands far from standard expectations. In the golden age of television, renowned filmmakers are increasingly expressing their interest in the potential of storytelling on the small screen. Dismantling the conventions of cable entertainment, the results are universally unique and provide a wide array of quality escapism for audiences. Regardless of positive reception (such as Zal Batmanglij and Brit Marling’s mind-bending metaphysical tale, The OA) or falling flat (Woody Allen’s muddled Crisis in Six Scenes), the opportunities for experimentation have garnered plenty of anticipation from viewers. Sorrentino’s transition to television was intriguing news, and the excitement increased even further once Jude Law’s involvement was announced.
Law plays Pope Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo), the forty-something ex-Archbishop of New York, who shocks the Vatican with his strictly conservative views. From banning homosexual priests from the church to labelling abortion as a crime, Pius baffles, saddens, and enrages his subordinates. The first impressions of Pius are overwhelmingly negative; as a character, he is highly unlikeable, and for the first few episodes it is unclear in what direction Sorrentino is planning to take him. It is the arrival of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) and her conversations with the Pope that break the barrier. Here, Lenny comes to the fore, and the more we learn about his past, the more relatable he becomes. While it takes some time to understand why a young pope’s views would be so embedded in the past, the exploration of the character’s duality is an outstanding achievement on both Sorrentino’s and Law’s part. Lenny’s search for a father figure and his aspirations to understand love create a human layer under the saint that the pope aims to become. Jude Law’s performance is one of the best of his entire career; despite receiving criticism for allowing himself to be typecast in films as the smug, handsome scoundrel, here he incorporates an impressive mixture of Lenny’s sensitivity and insecurity under the power-hungry, overly confident layer of Pius, creating a character that is both human and divine, loveable and repulsive, childish and patronising.
Unsurprisingly, the Pope is aware of his good looks, and his religious celibacy puzzles the cardinals. One of the show’s strengths is its exploration of the Pope’s relationship with women, but that Sorrentino never allows the romantic hints to overpower the plot. In some scenes involving the Vatican’s marketing director Sofia (Cécile de France) and the troubled Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), the sexual tension between the Pope and the women is raised to the extreme, yet it never goes beyond desire. Most acknowledgements of his handsomeness result in excellent comical moments, especially during the prime minister of Greenland’s visit, or in the LMFAO “Sexy and I Know It” dressing-up montage. In the second half of the season Sorrentino inverts this and shows the darker side of the cardinals, who aim to break the Pope by finding hidden secrets in Lenny’s past.
While The Young Pope works well as a comedy, it is the story’s dramatic aspects and the auteur in Sorrentino that allow it to truly shine. “The invisible red thread that connects them all…” – in one his monologues, the Pope concludes that artists such as Banksy, J. D. Salinger, Daft Punk and Stanley Kubrick remained relevant due to their ability to hide from the public eye. Being subjected to speculation and invisibility raised these people to the pedestal of curiosity, and this connection is apparent among the leading men in Sorrentino’s filmography as well. Be it Sean Penn’s Nazi-hunting rock star in This Must Be the Place, Toni Servillo’s eccentric Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo or Gep Gambardella in the masterful The Great Beauty, Sorrentino’s men generally seem to stand on the margins of society. Misunderstood and outcast, they seek repentance and resolution where they are unlikely to find them. In this aspect, Sorrentino has often been compared to Federico Fellini, whose influence has long been a major factor in his films. Fellini’s dream-like imagery and iconoclastic approach to neorealism have left clear imprints on Sorrentino’s work: his smooth tracking shots and lengthened pans reveal every nook and cranny of his luxurious sets. One might consider this as kitsch, but the Pope himself quickly dismisses this in the second episode: “Virtuosity is for the arrogant.” Sorrentino does not try to imitate the greatness of Fellini or anyone else though – he aspires to establish the show as its own entity, breaking down intellectual snobbery by paying homage to great classics as well as self-indulging in often hilarious pop cultural references – and he succeeds gloriously.
With The Young Pope, Paolo Sorrentino brings to the table something we haven’t really seen before: a sensitive take on a power-hungry religious figure who stands as far from conventions as one can. While the season’s final episode offers an open ending that could work well as a mysterious conclusion, the show has been renewed for a second season – and the bar has certainly been raised high.