“The Young Pope” is not what you think. It’s not dripping with self-importance, adherent to the weight many assign its sensitive topic. Nor is Paolo Sorrentino’s serialized debut a monstrous affront to Catholicism, throwing stones at a centuries-old institution from the outside. Even after two hours with “The Young Pope,” the Italian director of “The Great Beauty” and “Youth” holds back the defining visual summation of his show.
But when it hits (early in Episode 3), you’ll know it. And you’ll laugh.
It’s not as though people haven’t been laughing already. Much has been made of HBO’s foreign acquisition in the past week, when the show’s title went viral well before the season premiere. Social media users came out in force with memes, song parodies, and sharp jabs at the stodgy ol’ church, all building a brand around a show not yet released (except in Italy) and whose tone was only hinted at in opaque trailers. Given the jokes’ prominence, the question became whether the show itself would sport a healthy sense of humor, or if it would be squashed by the sardonic attitude struck by audiences who hadn’t even seen it.
Turns out, Sorrentino is in on the joke. “The Young Pope” is wickedly funny and deeply insightful. It’s a contradiction in genres analogous to religious contradictions: An aggressive drama and a respectful satire, HBO’s new series pits mentalities of the Old Testament against those in the New Testament. By doing so, Sorrentino seeks to define the line between God and man, if such a line even exists, and uses every element in his filmmakers’ toolkit to do so — including hilarity.
Picking up after the coronation of a new pope, the 10-episode first season focuses on how a change at the top can affect change throughout the Vatican, the church, and the world. Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), now Pope Pius XIII, was the conclave’s surprise choice for the papacy. Despite a deep unfamiliarity with Lenny, the Cardinals picked the comparably young Archbishop of New York to lead the church over his mentor and expected future pope, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell). Lenny capitalizes on the mystery surrounding his appointment, bringing in his adopted mother, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) to serve as his lead advisor, and challenging accepted notions of the modern church to encourage his reputation for being unpredictable.
Guiding “The Young Pope” like a skeptic, with a deep understanding of the church’s rocky millennial transformation, Sorrentino embraces all aspects of the faith in his depiction of a papacy that could never be. The various Cardinals that wander the halls of the Vatican embody various controversies or beliefs resonating within the church, all inevitably set to collide with both the pope himself and his office. Such battles may not happen until “later” — Lenny’s favorite phrase when his assistants and colleagues try to dictate his schedule — but Sorrentino’s dreamlike presentation (Law often glows as though he’s an angel walking among us) makes the wait more than tolerable. It’s fascinating, and so is the new Pope.
Lenny sets his own agenda by demolishing others’. He upsets a marketing plan responsible for a huge chunk of the church’s budget (setting a new practical agenda), gleefully dismisses officials who disagree with him (his personal agenda), and comes out quite strongly against homosexuals (enforcing God’s agenda). The latter point is an emphatic one, bridging multiple episodes and growing in prominence throughout the five given to critics. While some may cry foul at the series for calling out the Catholic Church on an issue where progress has been made, the deep ties of Catholicism make such beliefs impossible to reverse so quickly (exemplified by Pope Francis’ reluctance to endorse gay marriage), and demand accountability in a show eager to examine the complicated, barely shifting fundamentals of a centuries-old religion.
Seeing acceptance of the LGBTQ community not as a progressive allowance boosting the church’s dwindling congregations but as a violation of God’s decree, Lenny isn’t messing around when it comes to gay priests. Yet the Cardinals are none too happy with causing a stir, as expressed by their collective voice, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Secretary of State within the papal order and a cunning, power-hungry politician. Voiello stands in for the current state of the church: progressive and practical, always with the best interests of the institution in mind, but not without his own plans. His constant scheming, derived from chats with everyone of any importance, are a necessity for conflict and made damn entertaining by Orlando’s well-measured passion. But it’s his one-on-one debates with the pope that exemplify the contradictions within Catholicism.
In these interactions, the pope’s secret is slowly unveiled to his clergy; a secret we all come to know quite quickly, but that the world within “The Young Pope” is bracing against: This pope is no progressive. He’s a conservative whose Old Testament practices might be masking doubt or even disbelief, but are so terrifying, strict, and unrelenting no one would ever guess there’s a broken little boy inside the shadowed man bellowing commands over St. Peter’s Square. Lenny is not a young pope in his beliefs. He’s an old school Catholic wielding the authority of God like a battle axe.
A brilliant choice by Sorrentino, Lenny’s dated arguments are politically neutral because he cites God’s word as the guiding light for his own actions; an ancient word, but one still adhered to by the church. Herein lies much of the inner beauty within Sorrentino’s outwardly ornate series: Anyone angry with Lenny is asked to shift their ire toward the church. The cardinals protest their leader’s ideas, he protests their protests, choices are made, agendas are set, and man’s fallibility becomes evident in a world of infallibility. Such contradictions are maddening, as man tries to speak for God, but that’s the point: Lenny’s bluntly antagonistic central figure drives discussion toward the belief system itself.
“The Young Pope” depicts an isolated locality, self-identified as a city-state without an outlet to the real world, but Catholicism is not its target. There’s great respect paid to the church, even when its inner bickering, blackmail, and boisterousness are contrasted with humorous otherworldly anecdotes, like a kangaroo or a Cherry Coke Zero — an animal from the wild and an artifact of commercialism. But never are the subjects discussed in Vatican City trivialized. What goes on here affects billions of people around the globe, and while the series may feel like a religious fever dream filled with bizarre imagery, slowly we all awaken to the nightmare of truth at its core. The laughs just help us get there.
“The Young Pope” premieres Sunday, January 15 at 9pm on HBO.
[Editor’s note: In an attempt to be playful, a previous headline on this story included a reference to the title of the Migos song “Bad and Boujee.” Upon further review and reaction from readers, IndieWire has determined that the reference was inappropriate, and it has been rewritten.]