The titular character in Paolo Sorrentino’s new HBO limited series The Young Pope is a 47-year-old Brooklyn-born orphan named Lenny Belardo who earned his place in the Vatican by learning to play the system. Because there is always a system — even in the mother ship of Catholicism. And Lenny — now Pope Pius XIII — isn’t the least bit apologetic about how he earned his pristine white cassock and zucchetto. Or his plan while he has them.
For an American audience — Catholic or otherwise, and at least in the first two episodes — it’s hard not to liken this guy’s impending reign to the incoming presidential administration with its antihero leader whose ascension seemed improbable, and who, in the earliest moments since his election, seems to make good sense one moment and go off his rocker the next. But is that all part of a greater (divine, even) plan? Crippling insecurity? Or an ego that cannot be tamed, even when the well-being of a billion people correlates with his actions?
No question, the initial draw of The Young Pope is the guy who plays him — movie star Jude Law. With his wide eyes, noble features and impassive expression, Law looks like a Roman statue come to life. But his Pius XIII wants to be the Banksy or Salinger of eminence — a holy, hidden rock star whose real power lies in his mystique, even to the perplexed cardinals who thought they’d secured a pretty puppet more inclined to bow to their wishes and sell them to the masses than the calculating Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell, never better), Lenny’s embittered mentor.
“My only sin — and it’s an enormous one — is that my conscience doesn’t accuse me of anything,” Pius XIII tells the confessor he plies for hints about the cardinals’ sins to use as ammo. Thus, shrouded in darkness, he delivers a fire-and-brimstone first address that warns the baffled assembled faithful that God is all that matters. No room for free will or liberty. No need for friends and neighbors. “I’m not going to show you the way,” he thunders, before stalking off as lightning flashes and rain pours down. “Search for it. And perhaps when you see God, you’ll see me, as well. … I’m not sure you deserve me.”
Though Spencer warns his now-scorned protégé that “you’re the pope now. And you’re all alone — just like you’ve always been,” some fascinating folks are posed to leave a mark. As Lenny’s surrogate mother, the enterprising Sister Mary (who changes from her habit into an “I’m A Virgin … But This Is An Old Shirt” tee after hours), Diane Keaton is utter deliciousness. So is Sorrentino favorite Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican City’s secretary of state and a world-weary, good-hearted man who is nonplussed to see his church-reviving diplomatic agenda torpedoed by a renegade. And as Sofia, an outsider-let-in charged with marketing a pope intent on invisibility, Cécile De France recalls a young Lauren Hutton.
Sorrentino explains that The Young Pope explores “the inner struggle between the huge responsibility of the head of the Catholic Church and the miseries of the simple man that fate — or the Holy Spirit — chose as pontiff. And how to handle and manipulate power in a state whose dogma and moral imperative is the renunciation of power and selfless love towards one’s neighbor.”
“They chose a pope they didn’t know,” says Pius XIII on the heels of his rain-soaked proclamation. “And today they’re beginning to realize who I am.”
For the HBO audience, that discovery feels perfectly divine.
The Young Pope airs Sundays and Mondays at 9/8CT beginning Jan. 15 on HBO.