A brash outsider is appointed to lead an institution that he seems to wish to destroy. His public utterances are distressing, even apocalyptic. The Establishment is uneasy and the flock fearful. The outsider has brought in his own loyal advisors and seems unwilling to accept the traditions of the institution. No one knows the Young Pope's agenda or if he will act in accord with his alarming pronouncements. If this scenario seems familiar to you, it's a tribute to Paolo Sorrentino's prescience. Although the new HBO series, The Young Pope must have been conceived and filmed, in large part, at least 18 months ago, the show's writer and director seems to have tapped into an international vein of deep discontent -- a cold current of nihilism animates the film: the people want change and damn the consequences! An American viewer will necessarily interpret The Young Pope in terms of Donald Trump's presidency; presumably, international viewers in the eight or nine venues where the program is now syndicated will assess the show in those terms and in light of their own local strong men, the new breed of high-tech Fuehrers infesting the world.
Sorrentino is one of the world's great directors and he seems to have invested all of his magisterial pictorial gifts in The Young Pope. Although the Vatican refused (for obvious reasons) to cooperate with this production, the film's sumptuous interiors and majestic gardens and cloisters appear absolutely authentic and contribute to the film's rather Baroque majesty. The camera glides through hushed marble corridors; life-size alabaster angels and saints inhabit the corners of huge, stone rooms and eerily polished topiary glistens in gardens full of white-robed nuns plucking oranges from flowering trees. Some sequences seem to be set under the roiling frescos of the Sistine Chapel and the camera repeatedly stares at Michelangelo's Pieta from curious, even unearthly angles (when the Pope faints he sprawls across a woman's lap like Jesus in the embrace of his vast stone mother). These polished and marmoreal settings burnish a script that is similarly polished and marmoreal -- the characters speak in formal diction, studded with epigrams: prayers and speeches and, even, Shakespearian soliloquies dominate the dramatization. Everything seems to be proceeding within a kind of fever-dream, a hallucinated Rome in which enigmatic and symbolic figures are engaged in some kind of titanic struggle. Sorrentino's writing is florid and as ornate as the interiors that he shows us, an elevated discourse on the politics of religion and the religion of politics.
I write on the basis of only three episodes, all of them very fine, and, of course, can not predict whether the show will maintain the high level evident in the first few programs. Typical to this genre of HBO mini-series, Sorrentino begins the story in media res -- we are immediately cast into action that we don't exactly understand. The show's promise is that the initial mysteries will be solved, or, at least, their terms more convincingly explicated. And, so far, Sorrentino has made good on that promise. Aspects of the first couple episodes that seem inexplicable are gradually being developed. Thus, my summary in this note is untrue to the show -- Sorrentino carefully embeds his plot points in his operatic mise-en-scene and so the viewer only gradually comes to understand what is happening. Nonetheless, a broad outline is probably helpful: Lenny Belardo is a orphan, apparently abandoned by his hippie parents in Venice -- Sorrentino keeps flashing back to a nightmare Venice, all pitch-black lagoons and Fellinesque deserted plazas. Raised in a orphanage, Belardo was nurtured by Sister Mary, a nun played with effectively subtle fanaticism by Diane Keaton. Belardo, mentored by an older priest named Spencer, rose to become the Cardinal of New York. At a brokered conclave, the Vatican elects Belardo to be the new Pope, hoping that he will be a bridge between the conservative factions of the Church (represented by Spencer) and the liberal, modernizing elements in the institution. The liberal, even secular or worldly aspects of the Vatican are represented by Cardinal Voiello. Cardinal Voiello is a Machiavellian schemer and practitioner of Realpolitik. In contrast to the gleaming and impeccably handsome young pope, played brilliantly by Jude Law, Voiello is old and ugly, his face decorated by a black wart -- Sorrentino establishes the character in the first episode as representing everything ugly, utilitarian and compromised about the Catholic Church. The brilliance of the show is that we gradually come to understand the Voiello is the series' real hero, the man who must stand against the Young Pope to save the Church. Although the movie is often anarchically funny and alludes repeatedly to pop culture (the Pope drinks a Cherry Coke Zero every morning for breakfast and chain-smokes), Sorrentino establishes powerful archetypes in the narrative -- the handsome young Pope is in conflict with the old, ugly and toad-like Voiello; youth opposes old age; innocence is at war with experience, fathers battle their insurgent sons, and, ultimately, God and His Holy Spirit oppose human aspirations and ambitions. Within the framework of these primordial conflicts, Sorrentino stages the action in the film.
Initially, the viewer's challenge is to work out the character of the Young Pope. Jude Law smirks and winks at the camera. He proclaims: "I may be more handsome than Jesus," and confounds both critics and admirers with strange, mystical declarations: "Absence is presence" he says as he refuses to appear in public or allow his image to be disseminated to the faithful. (He delivers his first homily to the public as a black silhouette flanked by two immense columns in the Vatican portico -- as his speech reaches its dark climax, lightning flashes and a torrential downpour gusts across the millions assembled in St. Peter's courtyard.) Instead of issuing a message of comfort, the Pope proclaims the radical "otherness" of God and the fact that the faithful must pray unceasingly for forgiveness of their sins. Priests who disapprove of the Pope's brutal message are sent to Alaska or otherwise exiled and, as a sign of his radical conservatism, the pope selects as his name Pius XIII invoking the previous Pope Pius who may have collaborated with the Fascists and who abandoned the Jews to their fate in Hitler's Europe. The Young Pope's only confidantes are Sister Mary, who seems to be a true believer in his destiny, and a gentle, authentically mystical Priest named Father Bernardo. But Voiello knows that Bernardo is an alcoholic and enlists him as a snitch and coerced ally in his struggle against the Young Pope. Conspiracies are afoot in the whispering galleries of the Vatican.
At least in its first episodes, The Young Pope establishes a high standard. The show is at once very funny and dire. (The pope has a button under his desk that he can push when an interview becomes tiresome -- this button summons a young nun who has been instructed to tell him that he has other pressing business. In the course of one highly contentious interview, the Pope presses the button and the nun appears announcing loudly that "it's time for your afternoon snack", an utterance met with bemused dismay by Jude Law's character.) We know that the stakes are as high as they can be -- the Pope after all is Jesus Christ's vicar on Earth. Voiello ministers to a profoundly retarded child, possibly his son, in the evenings -- indeed, his palace seems to be some kind of orphanage where African children play on rugs that Voiello announces as "worth more than the GDP of your home country." After the Young Pope has given his dismaying homily, we see Voiello with the retarded child. He prays: "Please help me to atone for the sins I will now have to commit" and we can surmise that the dark machinery of a Vatican conspiracy to eliminate the Young Pope is in place and, about, to be unleashed.