‘Pope’ has no prayer of being credible
Depending on your personal levels of patience and perseverance, HBO’s “The Young Pope” is either a triumph of style over substance, or a defeat of both.
The 10-episode series, premiering on Sunday, Jan. 15, before moving the next day to its regular time slot, is the creation of Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”) and supposes that the papal conclave chooses a chain-smoking young American named Lenny Belardo ( Jude Law), about whom they seem to know next to nothing, to be the next pope. Instead of white smoke arising from the chimney at St. Peter’s, imagine puffs of question marks. Not soon enough to suit the cardinals, not to mention billions of Roman Catholics around the world, some of the unknowns about Lenny are answered. The cardinals are anxious for him to make an appearance at the front window of St. Peter’s. They also want him to make his inaugural
speech to the College of Cardinals. Lenny, who has chosen the papal name Pius XIII, is dragging his red-slippered feet, for two reasons: First, because he has no intention of being bound by tradition, and second, because he has always battled a secret crisis of faith.
Given his nationality and relative youth, Belardo was assumed to be a moderate on some if not most of the important issues of the Catholic Church, especially in the years after John XXIII and Pope Francis. He has strong views on some things, including not wanting people to be mopping up the last of the marinara sauce from plates bearing his likeness, and wanting as his chief aide the American nun who raised him in an orphanage, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton). But he is a cypher on other matters. Whatever the year in which the story is supposed to be set, the church is still trying to do damage control on child sexual abuse by the clergy, but Pius is in no apparent hurry to deal with the issue.
As Pius begins to show his hand, it becomes alarmingly clear to the cardinals and to us that Pius is militaristically doctrinaire, shrewd and manipulative, intolerant, immoveable and inscrutable.
The new pope’s actions and behavior are especially alarming to the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who first tries reason and feigned respect to get Pius to follow protocol and then takes the gloves off.
All of this should sound relatively straightforward, but it intentionally is anything but. Leaving aside, for a moment, the question of what Sorrentino’s point may be, the story unfolds in slow motion. The cinematography is exquisite, which is useful because it gives you something to look at when you’re otherwise lost in confusion. In concept, it is to Sorrentino’s credit that he blends sly humor into the story. Voiello tries to get in the pope’s good graces by offering him a way to cut down on his smoking: He tries to give him a vaping gizmo, but it’s refused. The pope looks at it as if it is a severed finger.
That one works, but having Sister Mary wear a sweatshirt that reads “I’m a virgin but this is an old shirt,” is really too wacky for whatever Sorrentino is attempting here.
We get that the Vatican is a political hotbed, so much so that it’s surprising the Russians aren’t hacking into it and releasing leaks from the cardinals’ private email servers. We can accept the moments of humor and the complete implausibility of someone like Lenny Belardo being chosen as the pope only if we accept a concept that the series is not meant to be credible. But many other elements of the series invite us to suspend disbelief. Chief among them is the idea that the new pope desperately wants to believe in God, but can’t get there, no matter how much he struggles.
HBO made five of the series’ 10 episodes available to critics, and perhaps “The Young Pope” makes sense as a whole. Half the loaf, however, is half-baked. In spite of that, and because of wonderful performances by James Cromwell, as an older cardinal who was Belardo’s mentor and resents that he wasn’t chosen pope himself, Cécile de France as the Vatican’s marketing director, and Orlando, “The Young Pope” has something that makes you keep with it.
Call it, I don’t know, faith?
Jude Law plays Lenny Belardo, a chain-smoking American who’s an unlikely choice for a pope.
Jude Law is Pope Pius XIII; Diane Keaton is Sister Mary, the nun who raised him in an orphanage.