On HBO’s The Young Pope, Jude Law is Lenny Belardo, the first American to rock the snowy zucchetto, and those with red, white, and blue eyes might see something familiar in him: He’s an uncouth outsider on a mission to make the Church great again. Repudiating the progressivism of his predecessor, the newly elected conservative aspires to drain the Vatican swamp of establishment players and anyone else who doesn’t conform to his image of Christlikeness; he’s bent on defrocking all gay priests, ASAP. The name he’s chosen, Pope Pius XIII, scares those who know history: The previous Pius was too comfy with fascism, too soft on the Holocaust. Lenny declines interviews, refuses to have his image merchandized. He believes the Church should be a cool, hard mystery — just like his conception of God, although he’d tell you his inspirations are J.D. Salinger, Banksy, and Daft Punk. (I doubt the latter will be playing his inauguration.)
You can take The Young Pope many ways except literally. This is a surreal dark comedy that presents a pop-psych deconstruction of faith; an irreverent complaint about the silence of God, Christian witness, and idolatry of all kinds; a subversive allegory for the rise of alt-right orthodoxy; and a metaphor for inchoate Americanism as world religion. I think.
What I know for sure is that I’m transfixed by the sumptuous visual storytelling of creator and director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth) and mesmerized by Law. He plays Lenny with an implicit devilish wink, an explicit embrace of his golden-boy physical beauty, and a palpable, seething complexity. Using a polished yet suspect American accent emphasizes his whitewashed phoniness. He’s a Great Gatsby pope, a Don Draper pope; he’s everything the Second Commandment warns us against, a graven image that can’t be trusted. Sorrentino makes astonishing use of locations and sets to create a credible simulacrum of the Vatican that expresses both the oppressive, byzantine nature of religion and also speaks to Lenny’s rigorously constructed persona, a meticulously kept fortress of locked-up riches, a bulwark to shield him from humanity. It’s often very funny, too. The opening sequence is an elaborate joke with a twist-ending punchline that sees Lennie modeling the kind of openness and inclusiveness one might wish from the church (or at least, one who is a very liberal critic of the church). It’s an entertaining way to introduce a character, defining him by everything he isn’t.
There are other characters, too, but through five episodes of the 10-part limited series, Sorrentino uses them mostly to comment on Lenny, suffer him, or produce modest intrigues. Silvio Orlando is a standout creeping delight as Cardinal Voiello, a cunning administrator trying to protect the Vatican from his new boss, and his large mole steals every scene. I’m waiting on two high-profile players to blossom more fully: Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, the nun who raised Lenny and now serves as his personal secretary, and James Cromwell as Cardinal Spencer, Lenny’s bitter mentor, passed over for pope.
Still, The Young Pope weakens when it looks beyond Lenny — the maneuverings of underlings to sabotage him are political potboiler silly; a subplot involving an adoring, crushing believer (Ludivine Sagnier) grows tedious — and when it tries to explain his faithless faith, too. The psychology that emerges is boilerplate antihero TV: abandonment issues. Still, his perspective expresses a common but very real beef with religion, God’s remove from creation, that troubles believers and non-believers alike, and seems to be quite popular right now in pop culture. See: Martin Scorsese’s Silence, AMC’s Preacher. The Young Pope is best when Sorrentino and Law produce metaphors for spiritual alienation and arresting visual moments that play like ironic religious art. Lennie’s radio is tuned to the Vatican’s house station, but the reception is poor, the music interrupted by silence and static. One standout sequence comes in the second episode, when Lennie addresses the public for the first time from the balcony, but in the dark, hidden in shadow, a nebulous bellowing at those below for their lack of conviction — in other words, making like the distant God he resents, scolding his followers for the very struggle he represents. Hypocrite. Another extraordinary passage starts hilariously — Lenny dressing in papal finery for a state-of-the-union speech, set to LMFAO’s “I’m Sexy and I Know It” — and turns chilling as he spells out a graceless, narrow vision while wearing a towering tiara that looks like an ornate tinfoil hat. It’s an inspired picture of high-strange crazy, and it captures a no-joke moment for a world at a spiritual crossroads. B
The Young Pope premieres on Sunday, Jan. 15 at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.