Imperious, unpredictable, and a master manipulator, the new leader ignores tradition and precedent in favor of a cryptic agenda only he comprehends. Scattered clues about his worldview are ominous, if not downright dangerous, and he excels at keeping everyone around him off-balance. Curbing the impulses of this arrogant and needy man is an impossible task, leaving bureaucrats, opportunists, and advisors to fume, plot, and drink. Through it all, the new leader glows with delight every time he tweaks the prerogatives of those who dare to question him.
You could say “The Young Pope” is timely.
This important and subversive HBO series, an international co-production that already aired in Italy, was written by creator Paolo Sorrentino well before the American presidential election. But as the post-Cold War world order fades away, individuals and nations alike are contending with instability and uncertainty where staid institutions and cultural norms once held sway. Looking at Brexit, Trump’s rise, Italy’s own experiences with the Trumpian Silvio Berlusconi, and the destabilizing influence of an emboldened Russia, it’s as if the West were starring in a garish and poorly written reboot of “Back to the Future,” but in this case, the hope is to return to a halcyon era that never existed. For some, the antidote to the fear that accompanies the collapse of the old ways lies in following autocratic leaders who require “absolute devotion.” And despite the hope in certain quarters that, as an American, he’ll be either a reformer or a malleable puppet, the former Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) demands absolute fealty from his flock once he becomes Pope Pius XIII.
In the press notes for “The Young Pope,” Sorrentino calls his drama a meditation on “solitude,” and like “The Crown” and “Victoria,” the HBO series depicts how lonely it can be to wield great power. But the timely political aspects of this handsome drama are hard to escape, especially in light of the rise of telegenic despots on both sides of the Atlantic. Power dynamics, world-shaking ambition, oppression, and liberation are the themes of “The Young Pope,” which uses the tiny nation-state of Vatican City as a metaphor for much of the political and social instability churning outside its august walls.
If there’s one thing the canny title character understands, it’s that many people crave a leader who effortlessly conveys an unshakeable confidence — even if his followers aren’t entirely sure what he is certain about. Are the pope’s brash pronouncements heresy, or do they possess a divinely inspired clarity? Does it really matter if, between cigarette breaks, he performs the miracle of getting people to pay attention to a fading institution?
Radical unpredictability is terrifying when it’s the hallmark of a real world leader who possesses nuclear launch codes, but it’s mesmerizing in the hands of Sorrentino, Law, and the rest of this show’s stellar cast. If nothing else, “The Young Pope” is a refreshing reminder that playfulness and profundity need not be mutually exclusive; this spectacular-looking drama has an affinity for surreal yet effective juxtapositions, and the director’s approach to composition is both poetic and painterly. Its narrative is not especially concerned with linearity and structural tidiness, but no matter. The spontaneity rumbling through “The Young Pope” illuminates the unruly possibilities of human and spiritual connection, and its sly, deadpan wit is often a delight.(One memorable scene of Pius donning his most spectacular papal robes features LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It” on the soundtrack.)
All that said, be prepared for some head-scratching in the first episode; in part of the dream sequence that opens the show, the pope climbs out of a pile of babies, and that’s not the oddest thing that happens on screen. “The Young Pope” can be jarring, but Pius’ dreamlike visions and various dramatic tableaus are intentionally striking, and those jolting moments echo the pontiff’s efforts to shake up the hidebound Vatican, where, as one character notes, “it’s as if time were dead.”
In its first five episodes, “The Young Pope” retains its artier flourishes (which include homages to both Renaissance masterworks and contemporary pieces by artists like Maurizio Cattelan), but it gradually evolves into a more conventional narrative, albeit one that asks whether a saint might well look like a sociopath to an unbeliever. As Pius goes about smashing protocols while calling for a return to a golden age that never existed (make the Vatican great again?), those around him veer between thinking he’s a prophet and wondering if he’s got a satanic streak. As the saga adds layers to Pius and his courtiers and confidantes, the drama’s quietly devastating critiques of the blind spots and the materialist greed that can be found inside any religious institution are balanced with beautifully wrought portraits of what it feels like to experience spiritual exaltation — or to miss that kind of vivid connection to the divine.
Pius relies on his former mentor, Monsignor Spencer (a ferociously great James Cromwell) and the nun who raised him, Sister Mary (a restrained and effective Diane Keaton), to both goad and advise him, and both actors are so good that it’s hard not to wish they had more to do. But one of the quiet revelations of the show is Silvio Orlando’s layered performance as Cardinal Angelo Voiello, a powerful Vatican official stymied at every turn by the intransigent Pius.
Law plays with the possibilities of the character with mischievous virtuosity; it’s a masterful, quicksilver performance. Pius can be cruel, vindictive, surprisingly compassionate, and justifiably paranoid, and Law unites all these qualities with a twinkle in his eye. But there’s an essential sadness at the core of the man who becomes Pius XIII; left on the doorstep of an orphanage as a child, he is both fatherless and motherless, and that primal wound leads him to wonder if God has abandoned him as well. Strolling through the grounds of the Pope’s private gardens at night, he smokes and stares at the timeless beauty around him, an enigma in a spotless white tracksuit.
Pius claims, in the tradition of visionaries and strongmen throughout history, to have a direct connection with the people, and he repeatedly says he is only channeling their desire for a radical shift of priorities. But how can he reassure the faithful with a destructive revolution that only he understands? God only knows.