Hit or Sh**: HBO’s THE YOUNG POPE
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A pyramid-like mountain of infants lies centered inside the Vatican. Out of this mound stumbles a man. He is only in his late 40s, but his posture indicates the demeanor of a religious veteran. This is the new pope. In slow motion we see this man undress, admire himself in the mirror, shower, get dressed, and proceed to deliver his first homily to a crowd of eager spectators. It is raining outside, but the pope’s presence brings out the sun. The crowd cheers, no different from soccer hooligans. Here we hear his first words: “We have forgotten to masturbate.” And so director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off the follow-up to his Oscar-winning THE GREAT BEAUTY and his critically divisive YOUTH, with a meditation on the dour affairs of 21st century Catholicism.
In an impeccable casting choice, Jude Law stars as the titular newly-elected pope, Lenny Belardo, humorously making his way through the corridors of the papacy. His election is implied to be one of political strategy. He is easily malleable and will do as the elders suggest — or so the Vatican believes. Sorrentino wastes no time displaying Law’s ascension in the ranks, kicking off his show where the third season of HOUSE OF CARDS begins. And the comparisons don’t stop there. This is a show about power. Our protagonist is endlessly sympathetic in his snide brutality. His smug demeanor and vicious rhetoric disturbs bishops and nuns alike. He is merciless. And as the new face of Christianity, God is merciless too. What Sorrentino has done here is usher in a new era for Catholics. This is sardonic religion-bashing of the highest order.
Let’s hotbox this papacy, bitch
THE YOUNG POPE will inevitably make for a unique case study next to Scorsese’s SILENCE. Both play with the notion of God’s absence amidst the ranks of firm believers. But in the same way that modern takes on race culture might dissect micro-aggressions, Sorrentino is far more concerned with the micro-hypocrisies of the church. In a noteworthy scene, Law cynically prays to God, admitting his feelings about the Lord’s silence. In the back of the frame we see a radio feeding white noise into the scene. Whether God is trying to break through and reply is left ambiguous, but it is clear that Sorrentino will mostly be concerned with our approach to religion in a world where even devout Christians swear, drink, smoke, commit adultery and get abortions. It is, in some way, a validation that even these people can be good Christians, recontextualizing the classical understanding of a holy man via the lens of Christian American nonchalance.
Sorrentino is, as is trademark to him, playing with countless Fellini-esque tropes. THE YOUNG POPE eviscerates the hypocrisies of the church with wit and humor. Dialogue — save for one expository scene between four priests — is of the highest caliber, and the way Sorrentino concludes sequences in order to build inferences about the future is brilliant. It ought to be noted that dialogue in Italian is often better than that in English, but that’s par for the course when the creator of the show isn’t a native English speaker. This is, without a doubt, the best pilot episode I have seen since BREAKING BAD. It sets up countless layers of emotional groundwork, helps establish the foundation for intrigue and backstory without giving too much away, and carves out an aura of foreboding thanks in part to Diane Keaton’s phenomenal, understated performance.
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What many will certainly be surprised by is just how comically charged THE YOUNG POPE is. Despite all its similarities to HOUSE OF CARDS and other serialized power-play dramas, Sorrentino makes a clear statement that nothing is as it seems here. The opening sequence bills THE YOUNG POPE as self-serious and hyper-modern. As Law travels through the corridors of the Vatican in slow motion, he is given the aesthetic treatment of a modern action hero. The music accompanied opts out of the obvious classical choice and instead incorporates hints of rock and electro. Just when you’re unsure what to expect, Sorrentino goes full farce. Priests faint in synchronicity with church bells and cardinals confess about having mischievous thoughts about 25,000 year old sculptures (they confess while distracted by their iPhone, no less).
It is in a particularly effective exchange that Law begins to light a cigarette. He is told that one can’t smoke in the Vatican. Law asks who made that rule. “John Paul II,” replies the cardinal. “The pope?” replies Law. “Yes.” “Well, there’s a new one now.” Sorrentino makes a clear case that his show will be a thematic deconstruction of what the church holds sacred, all the way down to its core belief in a higher power. Closing out the pilot is a particularly devastating exchange in which Law admits his atheism. Much is implied about where THE YOUNG POPE may be heading, and its off-the-wall comic approach certainly makes this complex narrative a little more palatable. Here’s to hoping that it maintains this exceptional level of momentum.
THE YOUNG POPE airs on HBO on Sundays and Mondays