Samuel Brace on The Young Pope…
Every once and a while, a new show comes along that makes a statement, a statement not necessarily thematic – though this one does – but a statement regarding its quality, one that says, “look out world, you’re going to have to be better now”.
This is exactly what new HBO drama (a joint venture with Sky Atlantic and Canal +) has done with the Jude Law led The Young Pope. Directed in its entirety by Paulo Sorrentino, the show first debuted in Europe towards the end of last year and made its US debut this month. And what a show it is. The concept, while kind of intriguing on paper – a new, young American Pope (Jude Law) takes office and does general Pope like things – but in actuality, when in the actual process of consuming its content, it’s another beast entirely. It’s actually very special indeed.
What strikes one right off the bat when first viewing, is not only its willingness to indulge in the surreal – the new (young) Pope is first seen crawling out of a pile of babies – but also just how god damn (excuse me) funny it is. The world of this show, almost entirely contained within the walls of Vatican City, is populated with a plethora of colourful characters that all orbit around the show’s star. The amount of laugh out loud moments caused by these genuinely funny scenarios, leads one to believe that The Young Pope is some kind of satire, a funny little prod at the Church, making light of an institution that takes itself incredibly seriously. And yes, the show is very funny, but it is quickly revealed to be much, much more than that. In fact, as the story reveals itself, and as we get to know our new Pope, we become to understand how monumentally sad it is.
The show manages to balance this combination of drama and comedy perfectly, in a way I’ve not seen handled so smoothly, and I won’t hesitate to say perfectly, since AMC’s Breaking Bad. It’s this very levity, frequently brought to the forefront more often than not by the brilliant Italian actor Silvio Orlando — the Pope’s secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Voiello — which allows the immense sadness of the show to permeate so very deeply. It’s that very disparity between light and dark that is so needed to make the other as effective as it is. The balance is a joy and getting that percentage right is no easy task – as many other shows can attest.
The Young Pope is shot to perfection, it really is beautiful to behold. Paulo Sorrentino manages to guide the viewer through his immaculately constructed world, the camera floating through the corridors of The Vatican, and creeping through the rooms of its inhabitants as if it were god’s gaze itself. The flow of proceedings allow a show that could be too intense for some if handled by another director, to effortlessly reach its destinations, and provide the viewer an experience that never once feels like it’s dallying. The sign of a good show, nay, a great show, is when an episode seems to finish only after it’s just started. Current series like Game of Thrones and Better Call Saul manage such a feat and we can now add The Young Pope to this most esteemed list.
The topic at the shows centre is one, of course, that might put people off. Religion is a heavy subject – the heaviest subject – and people have very differing feelings about it. But what The Young Pope does, rather miraculously, is provide something for everyone. If you are a believer, you will be touched by how well the show handles God’s weight. If you are without faith, The Young Pope will reinforce your likely view that the whole idea of faith in something you can’t prove is a little much. If however you are confused about your faith, the show will enrapture you so fervently (maybe even illume you) as you will be sitting on the very same fence as the show’s star – Lenny Belardo, aka Pope Pius XIII.
Jude law is exquisite in the role, it’s the best of his career, the way he handles the vast complexities of the man he is inhabiting is quite simply astonishing, and in Pius’s most tender moments – oh so relatable. At the heart of who this man is, and the centre of the show’s story, is the struggle he has inside with his belief in God. Which, as you can imagine for a character that is the Pope, is a verified issue and so very fascinating for the viewer. You see, Pius (Lenny) is three men rolled into one. First we have regular Lenny, a man thrown into the most bizarre situation imaginable, a man often seen sporting a white track suit, who was abandoned by his parents at a very young age and has never gotten over that departure of love since. Then you have Pope Pius XIII, who swans around the Vatican trying to balance the emotions of his past with his duties as the Pontiff – teasing the cardinals with change and refusing to be seen by the outside world. This man believes in God but has never had that revelatory moment, that connection to illume him (“I illumined myself” as he puts it). Therefore he is confused and desperate, fusing his quest for his parents love with his quest for God. And this brings us to the man’s final form; the uber conservative, extremist fanatic who has expelled the word compromise from the Church’s vocabulary, and desires Catholicism to revert back to the glory days of old.
This combination of personalities is what sets the show apart from all others. Lenny is a contradiction. You can never understand him. One minute he will be ranting about how he loves himself more than God and doesn’t know if ‘He’ even exists, and then next he will be desperately praying, alone in his room, asking God to forgive him for ever saying such awful things. One minute he will be lambasting his cardinals, lording himself over everyone, giving us the impression this is a man that has sought fame and power, but the next he will be instructing the Church to never let himself be seen, to abandon all merchandise and to seal off The Vatican to the world. The man is confounding, impossible to figure out, and the show expertly presents this disparity by switching between Lenny’s tender moments of love and desperate sadness to incidents of cruelty and authoritarianism. It makes for one compelling piece of television, and impossible to look away from.
Like the show itself, Pope Pius XIII is destined for TV greatness, if the cards are played right, the character could become one of televisions best. He is all at once a masterful manipulator, charming operator, and a woefully lonely boy desperate for love. The Young Pope is episodic drama at its finest, plain and simple. It rarely gets better than this, folks, and 2017 is going to have to come up with something special indeed to match what Law, Sorrentino, Keaton and co have here accomplished. The bar has been set. The direction is sublime, Law is astonishing, the show scored to perfection and the themes on display weigh so very heavily on the hearts of those that are open to it. You can immensely enjoy The Young Pope with a secular gaze; as mentioned, it has something for everyone, which is part of its greatness, but my suggestion would be to take events at face value, let the story of Pope Pius XIII sweep over you, and enjoy the finest fruits of what TV can bear.