Warning: Beware of spoilers! (Also, the review leaves off at the sixth episode.)
I’m glad I’m not Catholic. If I were, I’d probably be foaming at the mouth when it comes to the new HBO show, The Young Pope. But because I’m Jewish and have zero interest in the Vatican (although I do like the current Pope Francis), I can watch this wonderfully outrageous melodrama, free of any guilt or traumatizing nightmares dating back to Sunday school catechisms or weekly confessionals.
Directed, created and co-written by Paolo Sorrentino, the highly acclaimed Italian film director and screenwriter whose 2013 film The Great Beauty won the Oscar for Best Foreign Film, “The Young Pope” is a great acting vehicle for its star, Jude Law, who has finally landed a role worthy of his scenery-chewing inclinations. As Pope Pius XIII (alias Lenny Belardo), Law tackles the role with a perverse gusto that’s a hoot to behold. Whether it’s dressing down nemesis Cardinal Voiello (the delectably conniving Silvio Orlando) for trying to hatch a blackmail plot involving Lenny and the young, barren wife of one of the Pope’s Swiss Guards (don’t ask) or threatening the Italian Prime Minister, Law is hilariously diabolical.
Law blends devilry with warmth
In between the histrionics, Law is also capable of investing some of his quieter scenes, such as a reunion with old childhood friend and fellow orphan, Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd), with subtle nuance and warmth.
Both Lenny and Andrew were raised in the same orphanage by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), an American nun whom Lenny names as his personal secretary when he becomes Pope. As a big fan of Keaton’s, my favorite actress as a teen, I was disappointed early on at how woefully underwritten her role seemed to be. But now as the show lunges toward its conclusion, Sister Mary has become less of a maternal cipher/side character and more of a pivotal figure in Lenny’s new life as the Pope.
As we learn from the start, Lenny, the former Archbishop of New York, was unexpectedly elected Pope over front-runner and mentor Cardinal Michael Spencer (a sulky James Cromwell) in a conspiratorial coup orchestrated by a conclave of cardinals who thought they were putting in a puppet.
Little did they know that Lenny is nobody’s doormat. And woe betide those who underestimate the forty-something pontiff with the seraphic blond, blue-eyed good looks. Not only does he refuse to play their political games, but he further terrifies the cabal of cardinals into submission by demanding that the Church adopt a rigid hard-line stance on religious doctrine as well as a slew of hotbed issues (abortion, gay rights, etc.) or else. In Lenny’s mindset, there is no room for compromise nor compassion. It’s a zealotry that he uses as a weapon to wield his power over his underlings, which includes Andrew (not exactly a model of priestly celibacy).
The writing presupposes that Lenny’s extremism is a reaction to his being abandoned at an orphanage at a young age by his hippie parents so they could freely pursue their bohemian lifestyle. Their desertion haunts Lenny, both in flashbacks and dreams, further illustrating to the audience the scope of his unquenchable desire to find and reunite with them.
Initially, I had my qualms about this series. I thought the pacing of the first two episodes was slow and plodding. Since then, I’ve become hooked. The show is so amusingly twisted at times, rife with intrigue and manic goings-on that sometimes I’ve had to re-watch certain episodes just to gain a better understanding of certain scenes given their lightning-fast speed. Maybe I had low expectations, but this show has been a real surprise, no make that revelation, for me. Barring devout Catholics, I highly recommend The Young Pope.