|Jude Law in HBO's The Young Pope.|
As a product of Catholic education, I’m always curious to see what the world of art and entertainment makes of the Church, and of religious belief in general. The Catholic Church has always drawn its fair share of unflattering depictions, from the hysterics of Protestant Americans worried about waves of Irish immigration in the 19th century to the pulp conspiracy novels of Dan Brown. HBO’s new series, The Young Pope, which was written and directed entirely by creator Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) and stars Jude Law in the title role, goes for a much more surreal approach. Judging from the pilot, that’s not necessarily much of an improvement on some of the other, more outlandish takes on the Vatican.
The Young Pope received a wave of advance publicity from some of the weirder corners of the Internet when it became the subject of a series of memes, most of which subjected its apparent premise to faint ridicule. On the surface, it’s a straightforward enough fantasy: what would happen to the Catholic Church if and when a younger pope – and an American to boot! – succeeded to the papal throne? Law plays Lenny Belardo, an orphaned boy who’s taken in by a nun (Diane Keaton) and rises to head the Vatican. While there’s not much in terms of plot in the pilot episode, the basic framework of a traditional drama is there: a controversial figure gains power, but the degree to which rival factions are willing to let him exercise it remains in question. Once the pilot premiered, some Internet wags commented on the show’s fundamental similarities to House of Cards (hence the title of this review).
If The Young Pope really were a straight-ahead political thriller set in a novel milieu, that might make it interesting enough. However, Sorrentino seems to have something else in mind; the problem is that it’s not entirely clear what that something is. The show veers wildly in tone, jumping from icy, artfully composed scenes loaded down with portentousness to occasionally effective deadpan comedy. It’s also surreal in style: the opening shot of the pilot features Law crawling out of a pile of babies for some reason. I have no idea what to make of that shot, and it points to a problem with The Young Pope: unlike a master surrealist such as David Lynch, Sorrentino doesn’t really use the weirdness to establish or deepen tone, but seemingly rather to add artsy touches to a show that, at its core, is much more banal than he’d like to think. At one point early on in the pilot, Belardo navigates a room full of nuns and cardinals, who stare at him with ambiguous, vaguely menacing looks as he makes his way to the balcony of St. Peter’s to deliver his inaugural address. They’re beautifully arranged, conspicuously so, and we regard them through Belardo’s eyes, but the scene still has a clinical chilliness to it, a remove that kept me from being able to relate to anything that I was seeing onscreen.
|Jude Law & Diane Keaton The Young Pope. (Photo courtesy of HBO)|
Sorrentino also enhances that sense of alienation from the show’s events by making the title character deeply unpleasant. There’s little about Belardo that gives us a point of connection to him: he’s cold and distant, except when he turns on the nastiness to chew out a nun who’s overly familiar with him, or to humiliate a cardinal who thinks that his seniority will allow him to become the power behind the throne. House of Cards at least aims to make its anti-hero, Frank Underwood, sympathetic by having him address the audience directly, turning him into a sort of Richard III lite. By contrast, Belardo’s motives are obscure.
The same goes for the plot of the show, as well as the stakes underpinning that plot. There’s a hushed conversation among a group of cardinals early in the pilot that gives us the basic exposition behind Belardo’s (utterly unconvincing, both dramatically and realistically) elevation, but Sorrentino doesn’t do enough to sketch out the world of his fictionalized Vatican, or to convince us that it’s worth caring about. It also doesn’t help that the dialogue sometimes strays into cliché; at one point, Law delivers the line “There’s a new pope now.” If it’s meant to be ironic, I couldn’t detect it. Law is certainly in sync with Sorrentino’s vision, making his character icy, remote, and impossible to read or sympathize with. Keaton acquits herself better, although she doesn’t have as much to do in the initial episode.
The world of faith remains to a large degree terra incognita to much of television and, at least more recently, mainstream film. It’s disappointing that The Young Pope seems more concerned with political machinations and stylish poses than with seriously exploring deeper questions surrounding religious belief and how we balance our worldly and spiritual obligations.
Michael Lueger teaches theatre classes at Northeastern University and Emerson College. He's written for WBUR's Cognoscentipage and HowlRound. He also tweets about theatre history at @theaterhistory.