‘Pope’ has no prayer of be­ing cred­i­ble

San Francisco Chronicle Late Edition - - DATEBOOK - David Wie­gand is an as­sis­tant man­ag­ing edi­tor and the TV critic of The San Fran­cisco Chron­i­cle and co-host of “The Do List” ev­ery Fri­day morn­ing at 6:22 and 8:22 on KQED FM, 88.5 FM in San Fran­cisco, 89.3 FM in Sacra­mento. Fol­low him on Face­book. Email: d

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?

Gianni Fior­ito / HBO

Jude Law plays Lenny Be­lardo, a chain-smok­ing Amer­i­can who’s an un­likely choice for a pope.

Pho­tos by Gianni Fior­ito / HBO

Jude Law is Pope Pius XIII; Diane Keaton is Sis­ter Mary, the nun who raised him in an or­phan­age.

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