Speaking to the New York Times in 2015, the Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino explained, “When I start to write a movie, my first priority is that I want it to be funny.” Sorrentino, the director of such films as Il Divo, This Must Be the Place, and The Great Beauty, has, by his own standards then, already achieved a rousing success with The Young Pope, which arrives on HBO this weekend already a much guffawed-over internet meme. The series, Sorrentino’s first foray into television, stars Jude Law as Pope Pius the XIII, formerly Lenny Belardo, an American archbishop unexpectedly annointed Holy Father, and at 47, an extraordinarily young pope—or, as the internet would have it, Yung Pope.
The prereaction to The Young Pope—which is to say the general mirth surrounding the show’s title, with its hip-hop intimations, and the trailer, with its electronic music score, grandiose line readings, and Jude Law swanning around in enough grandiose all-white costumes to outfit the Hamptons until Labor Day—does what marketing materials should do: put an audience in the right frame of mind. The Young Pope is indubitably a prestige drama, but we have been directed to take particular notice of the cheek, the wink, the regalia, and the GIFable sunhats, instead of its seriousness of purpose. What is campier than the Catholic church?
Sorrentino has primed us to find humor where we might be inclined to assume reverence so successfully that viewers may be surprised that The Young Pope does not consist solely of Jude Law barking about revolution in his sunglasses and cappello romano. Instead, it has languid pacing and an earnest streak about religious devotion. (Meanwhile, the real sartorial challenge lies ahead: Can Jude Law pull off a camauro?) This streak—with its provocative but often specious and unchallenged ideas about celebrity and religiosity, fame and faith—is the only unintentionally risible aspect of the series. Save some laughter for the philosophy.
As the show begins, Belardo has just been appointed pope in a mysterious selection process upon which, we are told, the “holy spirit breathed.” Belardo was selected by his fellow cardinals as a kind of dark-horse compromise candidate, the hope being that he would not be quite as conservative as his mentor, one-time papal front-runner Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). Oops. Belardo, whose hippie parents abandoned him at a convent when he was a young boy, takes the name “Pius,” most recently used by a Mussolini apologist, and reveals himself to be an arch-conservative Machiavellian revanchist who is, spiritually, relatively pristine. (Contra a popular tweet and the trailer’s intimations, the Young Pope does not fuck.) The Pope’s unpleasantness is, in itself, a kind of joke. If the formula for so many TV series has become a kind of arithmetic of opposites—a doctor who can’t heal himself, a lawyer on the wrong side of the law—this is its logical extreme: The pope, but an asshole.
Pope Pius the XIII is the sort of man who chastises the bubbly Italian nun who prepares his meals for kissing him warmly, because he does not appreciate the complications of “friendly relations,” preferring the rules that guide formal ones. He demands a Cherry Coke Zero in the morning and turns that adolescent desire into an occasion to declare that it is “death to settle for things.” He ends a smoking ban at the Papal See solely for himself. He is petty and punitive to his underlings. The rigidity of his interpersonal style is matched only by the rigidity of his politics: He, among other things, begins a witch hunt for homosexual priests, hopes to forbid divorce, and wants to make it impossible for priests to forgive women who have had abortions—a kind of “soft excommunication,” as he calls it. He loves himself way more than his neighbor. He believes he has no sins to confess. He may not believe in God.
And yet he may be able to command miracles and is so personally beyond reproach as to be unblackmailable. Law plays Pius with a condescending smile and ready access to a theatrical rage. (Many of the characters are Americans, but they have a stereotypically Italian way with a fiery outburst. “Illumined” sounds great at top volume.) He is still very handsome, but, in that way of older movie stars, where the ghost of their former good looks, of Jude Law on the Mediterranean as Dickie Greenleaf, overlay and obscure their present-day faces, erasing, say, the paunch under the eyes more effectively than any night cream. His Pius is wracked by personal doubts, yet so fundamentally certain of his own superiority that he looks on everyone around him as idiotic cockroaches.
The challenge Pius represents to the existing papal power structures is not simply that he is proposing radically unpopular and conservative rollbacks, but that he will not play by standard political rules and has the personal rectitude, intelligence, will power and good looks to go it alone. What does one do about an authoritarian who more or less heeds the rules, both official and moral? (Parallels and divergences from our soon-to-be president-elect are there for the cherry-picking.) If that seems like a hard question, try this doozy: What does one do about a dictator who may be a saint?
The priests and cardinals in The Young Pope are made to come to heel. Immediately, Pius casts himself in opposition to the Vatican status quo. He refuses to take advice from the secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando, fantastic), a political old hand who had been hoping to run the Vatican in Pius’ name. He invites his mother figure, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), to be his right-hand woman. He delays his first address at St Peter’s, unsure of what to say, and delays his first message to the cardinals, waiting to get an intimidating papal tiara back from America. When they finally arrive, both speeches are humdingers: “[God] isn’t interested in us until we become interested in him, in him exclusively ... There is no room for free will, liberty, no room for emancipation,” he tells the faithful assembled at St. Peter’s. To the cardinals he gets even more frank: “Everything that was wide open is going to be closed. Evangelization, we’ve already done it. Ecumenicalism, been there, done that. Tolerance, it doesn’t live here anymore … We need to go back to being prohibitive, inaccessible and mysterious. That is the only way we will once again become desirable … I want fanatics for God. Because fanaticism is love.” His is not a benevolent message; it is a command for fealty.
This message is wildly unpopular, both within the Vatican and without, but Lenny is sure the faithful will return, a certainty that rests on his confidence in the power of his intelligence and celebrity. He explains to the papal accountant that he will not permit his face to be used on any souvenirs, because he plans to make himself the J.D. Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, Banksy, and Daft Punk of religiosity: a mystery who attracts people by his absence. He will vivify the church by creating a vacuum. He proceeds to hide out. He sends Sister Mary to speak to the press, only to deliver a message about how little he cares about the press. He refuses to let anyone see his face, giving his speech at St. Peter’s backlit, yelling at a parishioner who shines a light on him, “How dare you shine a light on your pope … I don’t know if you deserve me.”
Manipulating surfaces toward a larger end is, of course, not simply the territory of fame; it is the territory of the Catholic church. (It is also the territory of Sorrentino, who has built a dreamy, surreal world full of indelible images: nuns playing soccer, cardinals on iPads, a kangaroo in the garden, the pope using his holy red slippers to force a man to kiss his feet.) This is an institution that believes in the depth of the superficial, in aesthetics as the highest devotion, in beauty as a glorification of God. Other groups conduct their business meetings in offices, but cardinals do it in the Sistine Chapel while the head of state wears a wardrobe so decadent it could be fit, well, only for the pope. The Young Pope’s alternate title could also be The Great Beauty: Undergirding all of Pius’ plans is the awareness that his own beauty, whenever it’s revealed, will act as a voucher for his holiness, his looks proof of his closeness to God. (Just as Voiello’s pendulous mole is a reminder of his distance.) That Lenny’s plans for the papacy might be modeled on the antics of celebrities, that fame and Catholicism are like peas in a pod, is a delicious, hilarious insight that limns the conflict at the heart of the show: Does Lenny want to glorify Jesus or be Jesus?
If only The Young Pope explored these fascinating ideas fully. But having crafted such an intricate surface, it keeps us from their depths. That Pius might be able to turn himself into Banksy is indubitably true. (It is also true that this would turn the Vatican into a paparazzi war zone. If Elena Ferrante can’t keep her identity secret, what of the most famous man in the world?) But to what end? If Pope Pius’ agenda is to become the most gossiped-about man on the planet, he has hit on a great idea. But is there really no fundamental difference between celebrity and spirituality? Having made oneself into a celebrity, does a pope not open himself up to the derision and disdain heaped on the nonspiritual? Sorrentino purposefully made Pius nothing like Pope Francis (though he smokes like Pope Benedict XVI), but does Francis’ popularity not signify that the church being everyone’s “friend,” something Pius disdains, might actually be more effective than a fear campaign? And how much is Islamic extremism, not mentioned, influencing Pius’ thinking? Then there’s the show’s insistence that Lenny is doing all of this because of the psychic pain of being abandoned by his parents. But how did a man raised by a nun who wears an “I’m a virgin, but this T-shirt is old” sleep shirt become such a cold aesthete?
Rather than challenging Pius, The Young Pope treats him like an infallible mastermind in an all-white papal jogging suit. No one ever says, excuse me, you want to be Banksy? The show has been called House of Cardinals, except the cardinals all give up, despite their lifetime appointments. Pius dispatches his enemies. His intuitions are borne out. His triumph is preordained. His ideas are never thoroughly questioned. There is a telling scene midway through the season when Pius deigns to meet with the Italian prime minister, another smug young man. Pius threatens the prime minister, telling him he can make his voters disappear. Not to get too deep into the frescos, but the prime minister had been elected with about 40 percent of the vote. Pius threatens to reveal his own face, be equated with Jesus, and riding the crest of that popularity, tell Italian Catholics not to participate in the election. Catholics are 87 percent of the Italian population, Pius says. They are 31 percent of the prime minister’s voters. Add that up and Pius deduces that the prime minister would be left with a measly 10 percent of the vote. But the prime minister would have 10 percent of what is now 23 percent of the electorate—it’s not just the prime minister’s Catholics who will abstain—which is better than the 40 percent he started with. The pope can, perhaps, be forgiven for being no good at arithmetic, but can the prime minister—can Sorrentino? Maybe the math doesn’t matter. Soon after, the pope warns that he, the pope, is “a media event that is about to happen.” He’s right about that.