About That Young Pope

Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO show is a bizarre, surreal examination of absolute power.

Gianni Fiorito / HBO

Imagine, if you can, that an unlikely outsider ascends to one of the highest offices in the world, benefited by the machinations of a group of schemers who assume he’ll be easy to control, and will rely on their wisdom to govern. But the new leader is, it turns out, completely unfit for office: petulant, greedy, and with a yen for publicly humiliating people. Thanks to an unhappy childhood, he’s a bottomless pit of emotional need, and those surrounding him are suddenly forced to confront the awful reality of their choice, and how acutely it threatens the foundations of a major global power.

That’s about the gist of The Young Pope, HBO’s surreal, striking new series starring Jude Law as a 40-something archbishop from New York who becomes, much to the surprise of a billion congregants, the leader of the Catholic church. Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian filmmaker who wrote and directed the 10-part series, saturates scenes with the trappings of religiosity, but his real object of fascination seems to be power: how it’s achieved, how it’s abused, and how it corrupts. There’s little plot development beyond that, at least in the first five episodes made available to critics, and a good degree of cinematic self-indulgence, meaning The Young Pope is frequently tedious in a very dazzling way. But it’s also an extraordinary portrait of the kind of loneliness and neediness that sparks in some men an almost psychopathic quest to dominate others, and of the enablers who convince themselves that their work is God’s plan.

The mood is set in the baffling opening sequence, which sees the new Pope crawl out from under a vast pile of doll-like babies, dress himself, and deliver his first ever homily in St. Peter’s Square, in which he urges the assembled audience to play, to masturbate, to get abortions, and to celebrate gay marriages. It’s a dream sequence, and a feint: As emerges over the course of the first two episodes, the Pope is a regressive conservative who wants to take the church backwards, not forwards. Although he sips Cherry Coke Zero, wears Havaianas, and cites Salinger and Banksy as inspirations, in his thinking and mission he’s indubitably less modern.

Before he was Pope Pius XIII, he was Lenny Belardo, an orphan abandoned by hippie parents and raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), a nun who becomes his political adviser in the Vatican. He has leapfrogged his mentor, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), who was thought to be next in line for the papacy. Some of the show’s most fascinating moments come in the pope’s scenes with Spencer and Sister Mary, since he can’t quite muster the authoritarian sneer he uses elsewhere with the two people—neat parental stand-ins—who essentially raised him.

Now ensconced in Rome, Pius wastes no time in dismantling any illusions that he’ll be a telegenic puppet-pope, easy to handle and placate. He toys with Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Camerlengo and Secretary of State, in their first meeting, ordering the cardinal to fetch him a cup of coffee personally. He refuses to pose for any photographs, and delivers his first public address shrouded in darkness, furiously condemning churchgoers for forgetting God. “I have nothing to say to those who have even the slightest doubt about God,” he rages. “All I can do is remind them of my scorn and their wretchedness.” When a kid shines a laser pointer in his direction, he storms off the balcony, ranting, “I don’t know if you deserve me.”

There are obvious questions prompted by all this that Sorrentino declines to answer, namely whether such a monster could realistically conquer the Vatican while being seemingly devoid of charm, political savvy, and possibly even faith. The new pope often seems excessively villainous; Law employs hammy levels of superciliousness, peering down his nose at anyone in his presence, smiling coldly, and affecting an unblinking, withering stare. He issues whimsical orders (a kangaroo sent over as a gift by the government of Australia is released into the Vatican gardens, as bizarre and out of place as Pius himself). He sets up his own spy network, coercing the priest who hears the cardinals’ confessions into relaying the information to him. And he surrounds himself with loyalists, casting out those who displease him (in one case literally, all the way to Alaska).

The main narrative thrust of the first few episodes is whether Voiello will succeed in orchestrating the pope’s downfall, but it’s padded out with far too many scenes of Pius being, to put it bluntly, a total dick. (“I know I’m incredibly handsome, but please, let’s try to forget about that,” he tells the prime minister of Greenland.) Far more compelling is his personal history, which is fleetingly alluded to in dreams, his cavernous insecurity, and his inscrutable faith. Because his parents rejected him, Spencer tells him, “you want to make the world pay for the wrong it did.”

With his abrupt zoom-ins and sweeping shots, Sorrentino gives the show a heightened sense of the bizarre (in one scene, Voiello blackmails a cardinal while clutching a stuffed toy deer). The Young Pope considers themes he’s explored in many of his previous films: power and corruption in Il Divo, loneliness and isolation in The Consequences of Love, the human capacity for monstrousness in This Must Be the Place, his first film made in English. But it’s buffeted by the pomp and ceremony of the Vatican, with many scenes as richly detailed as Renaissance paintings. When Sorrentino contrasts this familiar visual opulence with modern life (as the opening credits do, pairing Jimi Hendrix and neon lights with portraits of saints and visions), the show feels at its most striking. But its pacing frequently sags, with the series’s ten-hour running time perhaps excessive for an auteur more used to handling projects within much tighter frames.

The Young Pope, a co-project between HBO, the British network Sky Atlantic, and the French network Canal+, kicks off a year in which we’re sure to see more meticulous examinations of political order being upended, following a series of extraordinary election results and a surge of populism. In that context, Sorrentino’s show is an intriguing mix of high and low art, combining the ambition and scale of a fiendishly expensive HBO drama with both the palette of an auteur and strong elements of trash. It’s a strange, often perplexing work, but it’s hard to think of a more timely portrait of an institution so disrupted.