“Ever since I was little I’ve learnt to confound people’s ideas of what’s going on in my head”, confides Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) some way into the first episode of The Young Pope, before adding, “I’m also intransigent, irritable, vindictive – and I have a prodigious memory.”
All of which is to say that Lenny is a messy character – manipulative, Machiavellian, far from likeable, and studiously impenetrable – and these complexities make him a fascinating study for a 10-part TV series. Add to this that Lenny is also, as the title suggests, young, ‘telegenic’ Pope Pius XIII – the first American ever to fill the post, elected, despite all the question marks about his past and his politics, by a Conclave determined that his older, conservative mentor Cardinal Michael Spenser (James Cromwell) should be prevented from ascending to the Papacy – and you have the formula for an intimate yet dizzying examination of the point where an individual’s foible-stricken humanity, a religion’s Byzantine bureaucracy and the inscrutable ideals of divinity all come into stunning collision.
The Young Pope is equally interested in showing us what’s going on in Lenny’s head, and in confounding our ideas about it. Right from the very opening scene – a dream sequence – it is clear that this is to be an internalised portrait of a man conflicted by issues both worldly and heavenly. In this dream, Lenny is seen ascending as an adult (in full Papal robes) from a mountain of naked babies in Venice’s Piazza San Marco, and then giving his first public address from the balcony of St Peter’s Basilica. This speech lays out the new Pope’s programme of iconoclastic liberalism, in which the Church’s traditional stances on homosexuality, contraception, abortion, extra-marital sex, divorce, priestly celibacy and the ordination of women are all to be radically overturned. It’s a dream, alright, but whether it reflects Lenny’s desires or his fears remains shrouded in mystery. By the end of the second episode (both were premièred together at the 73rd Venice International Film Festival), Lenny has settled on what kind of Pope he wishes to be, and gives his first public address at the Vatican for real – the reality forming a shadowy symmetry with the dream version. Somewhere in between these contrasting scenes lies the truth about who Lenny is and what he wants – and also, of course, what the Catholic Church, in its many different faces and forms, represents to its legion of followers (one-fifth of the world’s population).
From The Consequences of Love (2004) to The Family Friend (2006), and from Il Divo (2008) to The Great Beauty (2013), writer/director Paolo Sorrentino has made isolated, flawed male authority figures the specialty of his filmography, while always energising his darker themes with a mannered visual style. Here, in Lenny, he tackles the ultimate patriarch, offering glimpses (in flashback) of the abandonment, jealousy and lovelessness that marked his childhood, and of his ruthless game-playing in the present. The fluid camerawork of Sorrentino’s regular DP Luca Bigazzi transforms the Vatican into a seductive maze, whose intricate hallways, offices, atriums and gardens mirror the labyrinthine workings of Lenny’s mind (no less caught between history and progress), even as he struggles to find his own true image behind the many masks that he wears.
“I see Christ’s reflection in you,” Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) tells Lenny. She’s the one who took him in at an early age at an orphanage, and has since become the (mostly) trusted assistant to God’s spokesman on Earth. It is perhaps not so easy to see Jesus (Catholic or otherwise) in this petulant, devious, selfish, Cherry Coke Zero-drinking chain-smoker – but Mary’s real point comes in her follow-up: “I see Christ’s reflection in everyone.” The Young Pope may be a drama of double-dealing and dynastic struggles that just happens to be set in the Vatican, but it is too multi-layered to be reduced to a piece of anti-clerical (soap) opera. On the contrary, it merges the psychological, the political and the theological into a warts-and-all picture of Lenny as Man, Everyman and Son of Man. A highly nuanced and elegantly mounted piece of televisual spectacle, we cannot wait to watch the remaining eight episodes.
All episodes of The Young Pope are available on Sky Box Sets. Don’t have Sky? You can also stream it on-demand on NOW TV, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription. The contract-free service includes access to a range of Sky channels, from Sky Atlantic (Westworld) and Sky 1 (Arrow, Supergirl, The Flash) to FOX UK (The Walking Dead). A 14-day free trial is available for new subscribers.
Photo: GIANNI FIORITO / Sky Atlantic