From the recent annals of oddball, button-pushing casting choices came the fateful decree: “Hey, how about Jude Law Pope? He could bring along his slimy charm and cunning as papal rebel, something like Talented Mr. Ripley goes to the Vatican.” And here he is, each Sunday night, in all of his Law-ful creepy splendor, as the apostate supreme leader of the Catholic Church now in the midst of its 10-episode “limited series” run on HBO.
Blasphemy? Maybe. Cheap tricks in the guise of inquiry into the church at the expense of the dignity of said church? Probably. But it is also the lavishly produced and perversely enjoyable romp in the land of new TV, from a writer/director, Paulo Sorrentino, who has honed a commanding post-Federico Fellini cinematic voice (on grand, baroque-modernist display in his great, beautiful, and wildly engaging Oscar-winning The Great Beauty).
Also like Fellini, and other notable, thinking Italian directors, Sorrentino apparently has a natural curiosity — verging on obsession — with the looming influence and power of the Catholic Church and the machination of religion. If one of the driving themes of The Great Beauty was a restless quest for seeking out spiritual meaning in a relatively cold and hedonistic world, The Young Pope takes an almost opposite route by plunging into the religious city-state of the Vatican and portraying it as a den of schemes, political jockeying, and, as Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) declares, a place “of lost souls who have never lived.”
Fortunately, Sorrentino’s deft, underscoring sense of dark wit and kitschy melodramatic detachment keep us from taking The Young Pope too seriously, and the Jude Law factor provides just enough of an over-the-toppish gloss to keep things in the realm of plausibility-challenging audacity, with satire beneath the robes. In this narrative of a rise to papal power, Law plays an orphan who pursues life in the priesthood, winds up Archbishop of New York, and finally ascends to the supreme role in the Vatican through manipulations slowly revealed and explored over the series. He is a very different kind of pope, with a coolly imperious, scary degree of power-mongering that is akin to a certain new king of another power enclave, the White House.
What Sorrentino does bring to the 10-hour serial form on the small screen is a rare degree of big-screen-minded, cinematic values, with a sometimes hyper-visual character and cinematographic and subtle musical details, too often sacrificed at the altar of television expediency. The director clearly enjoys working in this mythic and imagined, cloistered and extravagant location, as when our hero passes through a sea of red vestments and ornate quarters on his way to give his first public homily before a teeming throng in St. Peter’s Basilica.
That Big Moment, at the end of Episode 2, reveals the pope’s eccentricities on a mass scale — including an aversion to publicity or public images of himself to maintain a mystique as a form of anti-marketing. “Absence is presence,” he tells the Vatican’s marketing person. “Mystery will be at the center of my church.” So are capricious shifts of personnel, upheavals of former order, consumption of cigarettes and his beloved cherry Coke, and hints of sexual dalliance in the wings.