Director: Paolo Sorrentino
Writers: Paolo Sorrentino, Stefano Rulli, Tony Grisoni, Umberto Contarello
Starring: Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Scott Shepherd, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Toni Bertorelli, James Cromwell
The simple concept of The Young Pope — he’s the Pope, but like, young, and also Jude Law — was enough to generate an internet hype machine of jokes before it’s North American premiere on HBO last week. It also settles nicely into the void left by Westworld, not in genre but in time-slot; the anticipation made this event viewing the kind of show you want to be caught up on because you want to participate in the conversation that already started.
The show itself is a strange, well-choreographed spectacle of lush architecture, vague machinations, and power plays set at the Vatican. We begin in a dream, a sequence where Jude Law, as Lenny Belardo, clambers out of a pyramid of infants to deliver his first address to an adoring crowd. It’s beautifully shot, cinematographer Luca Bigazi (a frequent collaborator with director Paolo Sorrentino) capturing both the beauty of the Vatican and its slightly surreal pageantry. The hyper-real, close-up shots of nuns and cardinals and priests contrasts their average, aged faces with the smooth, relative youth of Belardo (he’s supposed to be 47).
That dreamy feeling doesn’t quite end once Belardo wakes. Part of that is the pomp and circumstance that comes with Catholic traditions, and part of it is the slightly unfamiliar setting for a television show — most of my church-related viewing involved nuns in telenovelas. The sense of place is especially impressive considering the production was denied access to the actual Vatican. Production designer Ludovica Ferrario described to Vulture the challenge of matching the “collective imagination” of the physical buildings of the Vatican and its museums. That collective imagination of what the upper echelon of the Vatican must be like drives the tone of show; of course the cardinals are cynical manipulators, of course the papal conclave is nothing but politics and no divine intervention, etc. Faith is a theme, but Sorrentino is inscrutable in what exactly about faith he means to examine.
This inscrutability is worse when it comes to characterizations. Lenny Belardo is determined, clearly full of some kind of vision for the church. But what are his motivations, what drives him? No one really seems to know. Like a supervillain, he fixates on injustice done to him – he was abandoned as a child and brought up by his confidante Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) – but there’s no real way to know what he would consider just retribution. His goal is to revive the glory of the Catholic Church, but the show only hints at what that could mean. Episode three manages to soften him a bit with a little backstory, but does not illumine the audience as to what his true goals are. Pius XIII’s plan appears to be a return to the old Catholic church, a church that ruled by fear. His first address to worshipers is wrathful and righteous, the opposite of a speech centered on love that is handed to him by Cardinal Angelo Voielle (Italian actor Silvio Orlando and a prosthetic mole). He relishes his infallibility as a way to buoy his status, but the end game is still a mystery.
Sister Mary is another character that feels opaque. She’s clearly devoted to the boy she raised, totally convinced he is actually holy. We see her spy on Cardinal Voielle for Belardo. But we also see her answer the door in a shirt that reads, “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt,” and it’s a detail that I can’t stop thinking about. In a show so richly visual, this kind of loud detail should be revealing, and yet it tells me nothing about Sister Mary. Her personality never shows a side that would lead to that shirt, but there it is. Voielle is another character made up of details, but with no clear end goal — we learn other cardinals don’t trust him, that he cares for disabled children, that he trades in secrets, but not what his hope for the Holy See ultimately is. But even Voielle is stumped by the enigmatic Pius XIII’s election; he can only stoke the flames of the rumor that he orchestrated it so he can still be seen as a power broker. I’m not sure if the show simply assumes that the audience will understand the politics between liberal and conservative cardinals — it’s an Italian production and there might be cultural context I don’t have. Or the show might simply be biding its time. Either way, it’s a strange contrast to the intricate details of the art and architecture that surrounds these characters.
I feel torn at wanting to read too much into the potential political allegories — Sorrentino wrote the show a few years ago, long before a Trump presidency could have been predicted. And while Pius XIII is an inscrutable but charismatic personality with only a few trusted advisors, our meager insights into his motivations feel like they veer pretty far from any metaphor about Trump. Sister Mary’s unwavering faith in him appears to be in part because she believes he has the power to do the miraculous — that Lenny is a literal saint, and the show runs don’t dismiss her. Weather anomalies and animal interactions show us a potential preternatural side to Lenny, as well as mentions of at least one other event. There’s also an overbearing whiteness to the show — not only is the Pope young, he’s American, both a first and a continuation of the status quo. We meet one African cardinal — what country he’s from, we don’t know — and there are some brown faces in the lower tiers of nuns and priests in the Vatican, but none of these are actual characters (yet, at least).
But unlike Trump, whose convictions flip quickly depending on his advisors, Belardo’s fanaticism doesn’t feel artificial — when he’s in the grip of his long delayed address, it’s not just a show. He has conviction, though in what it isn’t clear. His belief in God is constantly questioned in long, strange monologues that leave the other priests and cardinals uneasy. Despite this tenuous grip on his faith, he is certainly presented as the most literal of the upper echelon of the Vatican — while the cardinals joke that the will of god is actually Voielle, Lenny embraces the belief that he is literally chosen by God. He prayed to be chosen in the conclave, and Voielle, despite his claims, has no other explanation for his rise to the papacy other than the breath of God.
Most revelations about Balasco are given to us in the form of monologues or ostensible conversations with other Vatican inhabitants hoping to curry favor with the new head of state. These monologues, combined with the strange characterization choices, lead me to fear The Young Pope might suffer from True Detective syndrome: all style and production values, no substance. I’m not convinced that theology is anything more than a backdrop, and it’s yet to be seen if the show is clever enough to deliver on its sheer weirdness. That said, it’s definitely entertaining enough that I won’t feel like I’ve wasted time on it. And we’ll always have the memes.