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TV Review: ‘The Young Pope’

Paolo Sorrentino’s first miniseries has a delicious conceit and a more soap opera-ish narrative than previously seen, balancing outlandishness with trenchancy.

What a delicious conceit: an American is elected pope, and turns out to be far more conservative than the College of Cardinals could ever have imagined. Add Paolo Sorrentino, one of the more inventively scathing commentators on society’s ills in recent years, and the combination already sounds irresistible — at least to members of the director’s fan club. The big question is how will this 10-part (originally eight-part) miniseries, whose first two episodes unspooled in Venice, play in the multiple territories it’s already been sold to, not to mention those countries waiting for the first flush of success? It’s a tough call, and international TV co-productions outside the U.K.-U.S. love match tend to have a Euro flavor that doesn’t suit wide American viewership. Yet there’s so much fun to be had in “The Young Pope,” from Sorrentino’s nervy writing to DP Luca Bigazzi’s eye-feast of pleasures, that with proper media attention, HBO can expect a loyal audience.

European success will inevitably be more significant, though it remains to be seen how the series will play in Italy, where the director has a mixed record in positively connecting with his fellow countrymen (Sky Atlantic airs the first episode there Oct. 21, several weeks after its first two episodes premiered at the Venice Film Festival. Sky then releases in the U.K. and other Euro territories later that month, while Canal Plus handles French broadcast around the same time; HBO has yet to declare a date.)

It’s hard to imagine “The Young Pope” could ever have been conceived before the election of Pope Francis, the self-effacingly charismatic pontiff from Argentina whose chosen name alone signaled his intent to move the Curia towards a humbler, more all-embracing Church. In many ways, Sorrentino’s Holy Father is the exact opposite: unabashedly American Lenny Belardo (Jude Law, in top form) takes the name Pius XIII, an unthinkable moniker in this day-and-age, given its connection to the divisive wartime Pius XII. However, Lenny won’t be doing anything that’s expected.

Nor will Sorrentino: his signature masterful compositions and mordant wit are of course on show, but where the director runs with his flights of imagination remains an endless source of delightful surprise. Take the opening scene, when the just-elected Pius XIII crawls out from underneath a Christmas-tree-shaped pile of naked babies in the middle of St. Mark’s Square in Venice. He has a further nightmare, in which he makes his first pontifical address to the crowds outside St. Peter, urging his flock to embrace nearly every social activity traditionally forbidden by the Vatican, from gay marriage to sexual pleasure without the bonds of wedlock. The homily is delivered with the familiar bravado and studied artifice of a Midwest politician delivering a stump speech, which is the only element of this nightmare to carry through into Pius XIII’s real life.

Lenny’s election was engineered by Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), Vatican Secretary of State, who assumed the 47-year-old would be a more malleable candidate than the bookie’s favorite, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell). Oh, how wrong can a cardinal be? From their first meeting, Pius makes clear he won’t be taking any advice from Voiello, whom he treats with the holier-than-thou superiority of an imperious snot-nosed CEO impatiently addressing an office intern. The new Pope will instead be seeking counsel from Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), flown in from the States to become his No. 1 advisor.

Sister Mary ran the orphanage where Lenny’s hippie parents dumped him before disappearing to Venice. She’s the only mother figure he can recall, just like fellow orphan, now missionary Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd). Dussolier makes only a brief appearance in episodes one and two, though clearly he’ll become a more important, antagonizing figure for the ultra-controlling Pontiff. Hopefully there will also be considerably more of Vatican Director of Marketing Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France), whose image-first focus so amusingly captures the apparent contradiction of the Holy See as a commercial enterprise posing as the spiritual leader of 1 billion people.

The real battle being set up, however, will be between Pius and Voiello. The Cardinal never bargained for a man self-described as intransigent, irritable, and vindictive, and clearly a major battle of wills is developing between the imperfect Secretary of State, used to controlling things with diplomacy and a wink, and the arrogant pope, who immodestly states, “My conscience does not accuse me of anything.”

Sorrentino makes big, serious claims for what the miniseries is about: God’s presence or absence, the bounds of holiness, how power can be wielded in an institution that preaches humility. Viewing the first two episodes of “The Young Pope,” it would appear these grand concepts are yielding to the joys of backstage machinations joined to waggish digs at the Church hierarchy (along with some choice, very funny swipes at American habits). There’s definitely elements of a more soap opera-ish narrative than we’ve previously seen, yet knowing the director’s ability to make sharp, astute comments that zero in on the ultra-serious underpinnings of all good satire, we can expect a wild journey balancing outlandishness with trenchancy.

The series is very good news for Jude Law, who hasn’t had an intelligently meaty role like this for some time, and he delivers the goods. If he occasionally chews up some of the gorgeous scenery, it’s because the part requires a bit of lip-curling, and clearly he’s having fun channeling the arrogance of an evangelical preacher with a Machiavellian hunger reminiscent of coldly confident politicos. He tosses off the line, “There’s a new Pope now,” with the insouciant poise of a new gangland kingpin, much as Scott Shepherd brings to mind Mrs. Barker’s maternal charms when he calls Sister Mary, “Ma.” Silvio Orlando, perhaps still best known outside Italy for Nanni Moretti’s “The Caiman,” makes a marvelously sympathetic yet flawed adversary, and the well-chosen international cast deliver their English lines with natural cadences.

Sorrentino’s regular cinematographer Luca Bigazzi scales down some of the more extravagant visual traits that grace their collaborations, making them more TV appropriate, though lensing remains exquisitely composed. As usual, the location scouts deserve high praise, and computer enhanced shots in St. Peter’s Square, or on the roof of the Basilica, look thoroughly convincing. According to press notes, future episodes will also be co-scripted by Tony Grisoni, Umberto Contarello, and Stefano Rulli. There was no visible break between episodes one and two in the version screened in Venice.

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