Church, specifically the Catholic Church, has never been more interesting than it is in “The Young Pope.” Created by Paolo Sorrentino (“This Must Be The Place,” “Youth,” “The Great Beauty”), the new HBO show follows Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) who is anointed Pope Pius XIII at the age of 46. As the first American to become pope, the Cardinals believe that both his youthful age and his past interactions with the Church will make Belardo a good ‘puppet pope,” a figure that they can control and watch over.
Pope Pius XIII proves these assumptions wrong. Smoking cigarettes in the papal palace and drinking Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, his extreme ideals shake the faith as he plans to re-make the church in his own perception of God. The nun that raised him, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), follows him to the Vatican, where they run up against a difference of opinion with the anointed secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando).
“The Young Pope” is filled with political intrigue, temptation and theological riddles for you and your eternal soul to decipher together. Following the coattails of HBO’s stellar track record, “The Young Pope” had the internet talking before the first episode even dropped. However, this story is anything but a safe bet for HBO. Cutting directly to the heart of the largest Christian faith community in the world, Sorrentino depicts the religious politics and hazy mythos that occurs behind closed doors.
In a style typical of what we have come to expect of HBO shows like “Game of Thrones,” or more recently, “Westworld,” “The Young Pope” is visually stunning. The garb of the clergy as well as the beautiful marble and garden scenes of the Vatican make it visually pleasing.
The series begins with a dream sequence of Law’s character crawling out of a giant mountain of babies in the middle of St Peter’s Square, alluding to his lack of seniority among the older members of the church. The scene resets twice before we awake in the real world with Pope Pius XIII. One of the stranger things that sticks through the first episode is the music paired with the subject. One moment a beautiful rendition of a symphony or church choir song plays, and the next Law is dawning garb to “I’m Sexy And I Know It,” or when “Levo,” a song that would sound more at home in a new age car commercial, plays in the background as he walks around his new domain.
Law gives a stellar performance as Pope Pius XIII, truly encapsulating the cold indifference that this particular pope brings to the table. His deadpan stare and off-putting remarks instantly set him apart from and against the established order. Pope Pius XIII has come to clean house, but his character is almost too unlikable a pill to swallow. Although Law plays him well, Pope Pius XIII is a hard hero to cheer for because he is abrasive and fails to do anything endearing.
Similarly, Silvio Orlando plays a wonderful Cardinal Voiello. He combines just the right amount of holy and politician in his portrayal, giving the Vatican a less violent Frank Underwood-type character. His civility towards the transition of power clashes with the absolute turmoil the new Pope causes, creating stellar dialogue and a wonderful conflict.
One place where “The Young Pope” would do well to repent with a Hail Mary is the character of Sister Mary. Diane Keaton delivers a good performance, but it pales in comparison to the rest of the cast. It feels like something is missing, and it distracts. While the character herself is entertaining – in one scene, Sister Mary is shown out of her clergy garb, sporting a shirt that says “I’m a virgin but this shirt is old” – but it feels like Keaton doesn’t give her the full life she deserves.
Overall, “The Young Pope” definitely feels like a risk, but it fits well with HBO’s lineup of shows and is well done. For me, it took watching a couple of episodes to truly get into the groove of the story and begin to understand the characters. It is slow off the blocks, but what it lacks in acceleration, it makes up for in the meat of the show.
Ironically, the only place that a show entirely about religion loses its flow and makes me check the time bar is when it actually gets into the religion of the whole thing. “The Young Pope” shines most when it’s quirky, arousing interest through the upheaval of established systems. With plenty of intriguing characters and stellar visuals, accompanied by Law doing his best impression of a mix between a rock star and a god, this show is worth the watch.