The Young Pope (Preview)
Reviewed by Declan McGrath

Directed by Paolo Sorrentino; written by Paolo Sorrentino, Stefano Rulli, Tony Grisoni, and Umberto Contarello; cinematography by Luca Bigazzi; edited by Cristiano Travaglioli; starring Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, Javier Cámara, Scott Shepherd, Cécile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, James Cromwell, and Toni Bertorelli. Blu-ray, color, approximately 500 min., 2016. A HBO Home Entertainment Release.

Critics of the work of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino complain that for all their sumptuous, sensual richness, his films are ultimately empty, overblown, and pompous—all gorgeous surface with no profound core. Sorrentino’s arguably best film, however, The Great Beauty (2013), succeeds precisely because it explores that very dichotomy—the splendor of the surface despite the absence at the center. Jep Gambardella (Toni Servillo), the world-weary protagonist of The Great Beauty, finds no lasting meaning in love, literature, art, or religion, yet he enjoys the beauty around him, a beauty that we also relish through Sorrentino’s sweeping camera movements, exquisitely lit images, and colorful costumes and sets. And if that beauty and style are simply surface without any transcendental or moral quality—so what? Indeed, The Great Beauty can be read as a celebration of the life-enhancing power of what some may view as cultural superficiality.

In The Young Pope, armed with a reported $45 million budget and the expansive running time (approximately 500 minutes) of a ten-part cable-TV series, Sorrentino uses his mastery of cinematic technique to tell a tale of the upper echelons of the Vatican. The Catholic Church is an institution and religion characterized by extraordinary pomp and ritual, replete with choreographed movement, lighting, and costumes (to be fair, the Church admits, and indeed teaches, that this pomp and ritual are mere material surface, but for believers they define one’s sense of moral character and valorize the meaning of life).

  Jude Law as   Lenny Belardo, the vain and unconventional, newly appointed Pope .

Jude Law as Lenny Belardo, the vain and unconventional, newly appointed Pope.

In interviews, Sorrentino has referred to himself as a nonbeliever who is nonetheless fascinated by the Vatican as a place of both spiritual and political power, explaining that with The Young Pope he “wanted to paint [the clergy] for that they are—human beings, strange human beings who have to relate with God, this invisible entity, as well as having a normal life.” Whereas Fellini in Roma (1972) made the rituals of the Church and its elaborate regalia feel decayed and creepy, Sorrentino creates the sensation of a dreamlike fairy tale, particularly through the stunning cinematography of his regular cameraman Luca Bigazzi, the visual splendor of whose work is well-served by this Blu-ray disc. Yet, while the exotic beauty is consistently attractive and frequently otherworldly, there remains a sense of overblown emptiness, particularly since Sorrentino’s storyline reveals a world of vanity, scheming, sexual exploitation, and lust for power. Viewers will likely respond to The Young Pope’s Vatican with an ambivalent mixture of awe, skepticism, and laughter.

The series begins with the forty-six-year-old prelate Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) waking up as the newly appointed Pope. He may be a photogenic young American who confounds us by cursing, smoking cigarettes, and drinking Cherry Coke Zero, but this very unconventional Pope also turns out to be vain, imperious, and even cruel. His first radical move is to declare that he will not appear in public, or allow his image to appear on papal memorabilia, saying that the faithful should direct themselves toward God rather than the Pope (intriguingly, he cites the examples of influential cultural figures who nevertheless remain unseen, such as Daft Punk and Banksy). But Belardo not only refuses to be a media-friendly poster boy for an ailing Catholic Church, he also proves not to be the malleable liberal that the cardinals had (mistakenly) hoped for when they elected him. In addition to his unconventional behavior, Belardo turns out to be a dictatorial religious conservative, a stance signaled by his choice of Pius XIII as his papal name, one redolent of reactionary politics. Pius XI declared the Vatican an independent state in 1929, while Pius XII, who was Pope during the Second World War, remains tainted with accusations that he did not do enough against European fascism during the Holocaust.

  Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) in the Vatican gardens.

Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) in the Vatican gardens.

The fundamentalist religion that Belardo preaches evinces little sympathy for the very human struggles of his followers. He tells the worried but obedient cardinals that the philosophy of “loving thy neighbor,” along with evangelization, ecumenicalism, and tolerance, are now all out. There will be no compromise on abortion or homosexuality. For Pius, a hardline stance against pedophilia entails ridding the clergy of homosexuals, to the extent of setting traps to “out” applicant priests who are gay. He instructs the cardinals that the Church needs “to go back to being prohibitive—inaccessible and mysterious. That’s the only way we will once again become desirable…I don’t want any more part-time believers…I want fanatics for God!”

Pius’s fundamentalism and its potentially negative effect on the present-day reformist Church creates unease within the Vatican and, as a result, its schemers, such as the crafty Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) and Pius’s former mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), begin plotting his removal from office, while making their own moves on the papacy. Such power struggles are not the focus of The Young Pope, however, which disappointed those expecting a Vatican version of House of Cards. Some critics complained that the Pope lacks a strong adversary and that the plot fails to build layers of tension. The story does slacken at times during the middle episodes, but it is futile to hope for a plot-driven political thriller. Sorrentino remains focused throughout on a character study of Belardo and an exploration of what motivates religion and faith…

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Copyright © 2017 by Cineaste Magazine

Cineaste, Vol. XLII, No. 4