“The Young Pope’s” opening title sequence made its debut Sunday night and, true to form, it was both a confounding and delightful experience to watch. Viewers had to wait until the series’ third episode aired to see the official sequence for creative reasons.
“In the first two episodes we don’t see that because they were longer,” creator and director Paolo Sorrentino told IndieWire. “Rather than sacrifice a scene, I preferred to cut the initial sequence.”
Rich with subtext, art history, nifty computer graphics and cheeky irreverence, the opening gives viewers a lot to take in and ponder. We see the titular Pope Pius XIII, aka Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), stride across the screen passing famous works of art depicting religious scenes ranging from the birth of Jesus to the Crusades.
“As far as the opening sequence, its concern, I had the idea of the long walk of the Pope to tell the history of the Church,” said Sorrentino. “And so as he walks in front of all of those paintings, you’ll notice that in the paintings behind him present the history of the Church from the Year 0 to 2000.”
Another detail ties together the art. As the Pope passes each painting, we see that a shooting star leaps from painting to painting. Elements of each painting also move, often as a reaction to the shooting star, such as when St. Peter drops the keys to the kingdom of Heaven upon seeing the star. It should also be noted that the theme song playing is Devlin’s instrumental version of “Watchtower,” a single off of his album, “A Moving Picture.”
Sorrentino explained, “At the beginning is the shooting star that announces the birth of Christ. So you see from the beginning [of the walk] it’s the shooting star, but then like everything else in life, things don’t go well.”
Just as the walk is about to end, Law turns towards the camera and gives a saucy wink, which took about three or four tries to get exactly right. This breaking of the fourth wall lets us in on the joke just as the opening sequence makes its big finish in which the 10th piece of art is a nod to sculptor Maurizio Cattelan, who once made a rather controversial waxwork figure of Pope John Paul II felled by a meteorite.
“As the years progress, the shooting star becomes this meteorite… like in the contemporary art of Cattelan who has a meteorite that hits Pope Wojtyla, Pope John Paul II, for all the bad things he did in his life.”
This apparent judgment by God is one of the many interpretations of Cattelan’s work, and similarly could be seen an indictment of the show’s own pope. Sorrentino prefers the viewers decide what they think about Lenny’s relative goodness or badness, but added, “If you wait to see all 10 episodes, that will be established in a pretty simple way.”
The show’s dynamic opening sequence is just the latest in the show’s baffling and cheeky aspects. Sorrentino was game enough to answer a few additional burning questions about the show, beginning with making his pope not only young, as referenced in the title, but also handsome. Beyond just the need to cast an attractive actor, having the pope be good-looking is referenced several times on the show.
“I wanted to make a pope that didn’t look like anybody else,” said Sorrentino. “And in a shy way, slowly, even the Church in the last 50 years, have started to give some signs of un-aging, getting younger. So you cannot rule out the fact that in the future, the Cardinals might choose a pope that sort of looks like Jude Law.”
Making the Pope American was also deliberate. “I needed a pope that, culturally, was very far away and didn’t know the Vatican,” he said. “A fish out of water, somebody who is not in its element. And also somebody who would bring to a world that is so steady and someone not moving in a moving world like the Vatican. And someone who could bring a certain kind of pragmatism, a certain kind of speed, which I think is very typical of Americans.”
In the second episode, we also saw that Pope Pius XIII was something of a marsupial whisperer when he was able to calm a kangaroo that was sent to him as a gift from Australia. The kangaroo pops up periodically throughout the series at odd moments since Lenny let the creature wander the Vatican’s gardens.
“It’s funny; it makes you laugh when men start meeting atypical animals, exotic animals,” said Sorrentino, explaining the kangaroo’s presence. “Also because uncommon animals, not cats and dogs, but kangaroos or giraffes, they put you in front of the mystery of yourself. It’s like if you were looking at yourself in the mirror and you see the mystery because they are incomprehensible, they’re hard to understand. And so that gives you the same sense of the difficulty of understanding yourself because you realize you’re an animal like they are and give the sense of mystery.”
Despite his affinity for the Australian animal, Lenny doesn’t appear to be or want to be well-traveled. In fact, he refused to do the usual global publicity tours that are expected of the pope in order to maintain his air of mystery and remoteness. In contrast, however, he takes great delight in looking at a giant, internally lit globe in his office. Sorrentino said that globe was custom-made by the set designer.
“The globe is there to make it more funny the scenes when [the Pope] has fun sending people all over the world, to the most horrible places in the world on the other side,” Sorrentino said.
The Pope is a vindictive pope, and he’s particularly enamored with sending his enemies or those he deems of as less devout to the city of Ketchikan, Alaska.
“I chose that because in my imagination, in my mind, Alaska is the most punitive place in the world,” said Sorrentino.” So Lenny enjoys to inflict that kind of punishment on somebody when he decides that he wants to punish them for some reason. So he has fun with it. And Ketchikan is because it is the first name that came up when I looked at the globe and looked in Alaska.”
“The Young Pope” airs Sunday and Monday nights at 9 p.m. on HBO.