HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’ is an Addictive, Oddball Art Piece
HBO’s newest and recently concluded limited series, from the mind of Pablo Sorrentino, has been turning many heads for its weird, wild, and kind of funny style. With an impressive cast featuring Jude Law, Diane Keaton, and James Cromwell, the show is an abstract character study of a mentally needy young man who falls into incredible power. It oddly reflects the Trump administration in some ways, especially if you are looking for it, though Sorrentino could not possibly have done it on purpose. But it is the story’s sheer imagination and quotability alone that makes this show memorable and it’s crafted with great artistic passion.
A young priest named Lenny Bernardo (Jude Law) finds himself unexpectedly elected Pope, edging out his mentor Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), both of whom are American. Most of the clergy predicted Spencer to become the next Pope, and why Bernardo won is a matter of mystery for some time, but it clearly has something to do with collusion within the church. The show uses corruption as a plot device, at times being imaginative and at other times being quite revealing, as Sorrentino clearly has some knowledge on the backhand dealings of the Vatican City. Bernardo, or more specifically Pope Pius XIII, is an orphan adopted by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), a young nun who runs a catholic orphanage. Pius XIII is haunted by the memory of his abandonment at age seven, which is a humongous part of his conservative and unforgiving nature. He’s very immature because of it, unreasonable with his demands, and much more pompous than pious. As Pius vies for his demands to be met, he is met by resistance by the Cardinals of Rome, namely Cardinal Spencer, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), and Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepard) aka Andrew, Pius’ foster brother.
This is Jude Law’s finest performance to date. He commands every scene with incredible angst, a desire for power but also for acceptance, and it just fills every shot with unpredictability. You can truly feel the intense power of his enormous yet fragile ego. Silvio Orlando is also a great cast as Cardinal Voiello, the mischievous but humorous Vatican Secretary of State, but it is Cardinal Spencer who provides some of the most intense and dramatic moments. James Cromwell gives a career performance as Spencer, serving as both an adversary and a father figure to Pius. Sister Mary is obviously the mother figure, though she tells Lenny to call him Sister Mary and “never mom”. Diane Keaton excels as one of the few people to stand by Pius, believing him to be “a saint”.
The dynamic between every character is rich and compelling, often resulting in a battle of wits. The confrontation between Pius and the progressive Italian Prime Minister is one of the most interesting displays of two Machiavellian personalities since the walks through the garden in early seasons of Game of Thrones. This is but one example of what The Young Pope offers. The acting is all around incredible, but the cinematography might be its best quality. It’s visually striking, the lighting especially, also incorporating beautiful use of color and symmetry. The production design is gorgeous and believable too considering it is not actually shot in Vatican City (it was shot in a studio in Rome). The recreation of the Sistine Chapel is particularly impressive. Lele Marchitelli also deserves credit for a brilliant and eclectic soundtrack, mainly with a mix of violin quartets and electronic drums and synths.
I had some doubts about this show during its initial advertisements, but I personally loved it and give it five stars. It was just as strange as advertised though, if not more so. Many Americans will be able to tell that it is a foreign filmmaker, especially those who watch more television than they do film. But many of the stranger scenes are dream sequences, merely mood setters, and exposers of Lenny’s subconscious.
This show has great music, acting, and many interesting characters. The pacing may seem slow, as the show has ten long episodes, but anybody with patience will see this is a work of art. Some may have qualms with the story, and that is fair considering it is more about the ride than the end itself, but regardless this is a quality program and yet another strong showing from HBO.