“The Young Pope” opens with the startling image of a mountain of newborn babies, smack dab in the middle of Venice’s Piazza San Marco. Paolo Sorrentino’s camera cranes over this infant heap as a middle-aged man emerges, clad in pontiff’s white. He then takes a midnight stroll along the plaza and into a church. Fans of the Italian director won’t be surprised; his recent films have been rich with such baroquely orchestrated shots. But they may be surprised with what happens next: Sorrentino immediately cuts to a more conventionally shot sequence of the same man, waking up and readying himself in the morning. It reminds us that what we saw was a dream, and what we’re watching is not a film.
One of the interesting elements of this 10-part miniseries is seeing how Sorrentino translates his big-screen exuberance to the more deliberate pace of television. And if this first installment gives us any indication (running two hours, these are actually the first two episodes), the director seems to have acclimated with ease. Instead of presenting that opening image and moving on the next dazzler, over a slow-burn two hours he investigates it, teasing out who the man is and what the image means.
The “who” is simple enough. Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo, former cardinal of New York. The series picks up just after the enigmatic 47-year-old has been tapped to become Bishop of Rome, making him not only the youngest pope, but also the first American to lead the church (and, not for nothing, the first pope named Lenny). His election came as a surprise to all, perhaps even himself, though Sorrentino is quick to inform us that it had little to do with divine provenance. Instead, it had everything to with the powerful Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican Secretary of State, who maneuvered to give the papacy a fresh and dynamic face so that he could keep calling the shots behind the scenes.
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The relationship between the two men, which quickly devolves into out and out antagonism, is set up as the series’ major conflict. Lenny, who takes the name Pius XIII and whose veneer of cocksure arrogance sometimes slips to show the terror behind his eyes, won’t settle for a patsy papacy and sets out to vastly remake the office in his image. He has the counterintuitive notion of doing so while completely withholding said image, to strengthen his position by shrouding it in mystery. Meanwhile, Voiello looks on aghast, slowly acknowledging the enormity of his miscalculation, and wondering what he could do to regain his power.
The two episodes hit these beats at a leisurely pace, with Sorrentino stopping along the way to add generous helpings of mordant wit. He takes advantage of his ready-and-willing leads to sketch characters with sharp inner contrasts. Voiello represents everything corrupt and moribund about the College of Cardinals (he confesses to a priest “all of my sins have to with international banking – you wouldn’t understand”) and genuinely believes in a Francis-like gospel of love and forgiveness. On the other hand, Lenny can throw down on Banksy and Daft Punk like he’s any fortysomething New Yorker, while subscribing to an ultra-exclusionary, ultra-conservative doctrine that, at a bare minimum, predates the Vatican II reforms.
Add Diane Keaton to the mix and you have your three leads. She’s Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphaned Lenny and who he sees as a surrogate mother (virgin Mary, geddit). As pope, he brings her on as assistant and consigliere and has her spy on the cardinal until Mary finds herself not entirely unsympathetic to Voiello’s position, so you just know there’s d-r-a-m-a ahead.
A series of international character actors fill out the cast as moles, allies, and future pawns in the political game. James Cromwell shows up for only one scene, but it’s one that indicates a major role in episodes to come. Cecile de France offers comic relief as the Vatican’s head of marketing and Ludivine Sagnier shows up in a couple of crowd shots for no discernible purpose other than to introduce a character who mean more later. Which is sort of the purpose of any pilot, really.
Most of these two hours are spent setting up the board before the game can actually begin. For all we know, the show could move away from papal power plays toward a larger theological inquiry. People around the festival have taken to “House of Cardinals,” but with its mostly Italian cast and hard-assed lead, I give you permission to call it “The Poperanos” as well.
A joint production of Sky, HBO and Canal+, “The Young Pope” will be seen in the U.S. on HBO in 2017.