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How Paolo Sorrentino’s ‘The Young Pope’ Boldly Takes Us Inside the Vatican

For the HBO series, Emmy-contender cinematographer Luca Bigazzi created strong visual contrasts to recreate the mystery of the Vatican.

“The Young Pope”


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The Young Pope” explores faith and doubt, with Jude Law as a rogue American Pope driven to shake up the system. To that end, director Paolo Sorrentino and his long-time cinematographer Luca Bigazzi overturned visual convention for their first TV series together.

“From my very first meeting with Paolo we said that the film should have strong contrasts, contrasts almost antithetical to the TV style,” said Bigazzi. “Extremely strong lights, almost blinding, and extreme darkness, bordering on the limits of visibility. Our approach didn’t only want to be a sterile challenge against the age-old and now outdated conventions of television (which in Italy are still the rule), but mainly wanted to be a visual way of interpreting a story that talks about holiness, perdition, transparency, mystery, unspeakable secrets and revealed truths.”

Opening up the Vatican

“The Young Pope” is set mainly in the inaccessible Vatican in Rome.  Therefore, visual references had to be completely invented as part of Ludovica Ferrario’s production design, and, of course, the filmmakers were never able to verify whether or not their intuitions were correct.

“The Young Pope”

“However, I’m convinced that being born in Italy, having a knowledge of Italian art, so imbued with religiosity, having always been curious tourists of magnificent cathedrals and mysterious convents, was certainly a (typically Italian) common cultural ground that allowed us to face a difficult reconstruction with a very wide margin of credibility,” said Bigazzi.

Shooting with Strong Lights

They shot the on the Red camera with Leica Summicron-C lenses and Promist filters, which accentuated strong lights, endowing every window, every table lamp, with a magical halo of brightness. Also, the possibility of shooting with two exposures offered by the HDR system, one for strong lights and another for shadows, turned out to be crucial.

“The Young Pope”

The contrast with the deeper darkness, therefore, comes across as more marked,” Bigazzi said. “From this point of view, the choice of colors and costumes became much more important than in other films. We tried to avoid too much color intensity and chose pastel tones, which we thought would better suit the rooms of the Vatican. The intense red of the cardinals’ robes was thus enhanced.”

The Sistine Chapel Challenge

One of the most complicated scenes occurred in the studio reconstruction of the Sistine Chapel. Difficult because of the vastness of the environment, time limitations, and the number of extras. “The need to shoot with four cameras at the same time became clear immediately,” said Bigazzi. “The use of large helium balloons was decisive. It’s very difficult for me to shoot considering that a large part of the environment will then be reconstructed using special effects and imagining how this can influence cinematographic choices in terms of windows or light sources not present on the actual set.”

The Young Pope Paolo Sorrentino Making of behind the scenes

“The Young Pope”

Gianni Fiorito/HBO

Shooting Around the Face of Jude Law

The cinematographer found Law to be generous, intense, and a great physical presence. But, in the fourth episode, when the Pope held his first speech to the crowd in St. Peter’s square, at night, the director wanted everything to be visible, except his face.

“To achieve this, I had to use some very precise and accurate, almost theatrical, lights,” said Bigazzi. “My concern was that the great sensitivity of digital shooting would prevent me from obscuring Jude’s face. It was extremely difficult, but I think I managed to respect Paolo’s and the script’s requirements.”

“The Young Pope”

HBO

Then, during the 10th episode, when the Pope speaks to the crowd in St. Mark’s square in Venice, Law had his back facing the camera because his close-up had already been shot in the studio 20 weeks earlier, and they just needed his voice for the extras. Law not only repeated his speech passionately by heart, but also became emotional at one point so the extras would follow him with the required attention.

“By the end of those long four minutes, he turned around and his eyes were full of tears,” Bigazzi said.

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