At many points in Paulo Sorrentino’s television show The Young Pope, Jude Law’s Pope Pius XIII says, “I know I’m incredibly handsome. Please, let’s try to forget about that.”
The self-awareness of these moments are underscored by the fact that Law’s camera-friendly visage fills up the screen in almost every scene. The camera rests langourously on Law’s face as he enjoys long drags of yet another cigarette. By casting Law, who is in fine form, and seems to enjoy labouring over every line of dialogue, Sorrentino has won half the battle already.
The HBO show marks the Italian filmmaker’s television debut. Law stars as Lenny Belardo, a 47-year-old American who likes to smoke and drink Cherry Coke Zero and is not entirely sure of the existence of God. And yet, he becomes the head of the Catholic Church.
In his films, including the celebrated Il Divo and The Great Beauty, Sorrentino’s over-reliance on impeccably designed shots and sumptuous production design has occasionally gotten the better of him. The 46-year-old director appears to have been building up towards The Young Pope his entire career. The life of the pope and the goings-on in the Vatican are anything if not theatrical – at least that is what this show would have us believe.
The Young Pope follows Belardo as he deals with his newfound power and the senior clergy members, who become increasingly wary as he alienates believers by making doom-laden pronouncements and banning abortion and homosexual priests.
The show, as many jokes on social media suggest, could easily have been called House of Cardinals. Members of the clergy whisper in ornate hallways and plot and scheme in their quest for power.
But unlike the Netflix series House of Cards, none of the characters is cartoonishly evil. Even Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who starts out as the primary antagonist, becomes a humane figure of pity by the end. Sorrentino’s signature Felliniesque humour runs throughout the series. The first episode opens in a room full of newborn babies, and Belardo crawls out from among them. In another sequence, he gets ready for his first meeting with the cardinals in the Sistine Chapel as LMFAO’s dance hit Sexy and I Know It plays in the background. The scenes are emblematic of the overall narrative style, which mixes philosophical digressions with over-the-top drama.
Sorrentino, like Belardo, is trying to gauge some kind of truth about the human condition. Even if you are not religious, some of Belardo’s monologues, which are delivered by Law with a mix of sentimentality and distance, are oddly compelling. There are genuinely moving moments in the discussions between Belardo and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), as the young pope tries to learn more about his parents and his mysterious past.
Here, too, Sorrentino lets his penchant for shiny surfaces get the better of him. There is a plethora of hyper-stylised sequences, right from the opening sequence to one involving a kangaroo. But by this time, the director has the magnetic Law to tie it all together.