In the “The Young Pope,” an Italian-American HBO drama that originally aired for Sky Atlantic in Italy last fall, a young American cardinal, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), is chosen to serve as the new pope. What the clergy did not anticipate, however, is their election of a man with a poisonous doubt in God, who hangs on to a sense of abandonment he never let go, having grown up as an orphan. Their first red flag? His namesake: Pope Pius XIII.
Upon watching “The Young Pope,” I was mystified as to how on Earth they received permission to produce such a heretical show in the Vatican. Each shot of the show looks like a Renaissance painting come to life, with cinematography that can border on breathtaking. This is made all the more impressive upon learning that the show was not shot in the Vatican at all, instead utilizing its €40 million budget to recreate the holy city almost flawlessly.
The cinematography is brilliantly juxtaposed with a score by Lele Marchitelli that ranges from modern synth, to rock and orchestral music. Marchitelli seems to develop an unspoken language in the viewer. Each severe mood swing of the Pope is accompanied by the proper instrumentation. Playfully sinister, digital tones accompany his moments of inspiration, while choir and orchestra usually mean a Cardinal or congregation is about to suffer his wrath. In combination with a Jimi Hendrix-inspired theme song, the audiovisual composition of the show matches exactly what is occurring on-screen: youth and tradition colliding with biblical force.
The viewer’s obsession inevitably centers around Jude Law’s ambiguous character, and the plot feels almost secondary. From the pilot, to the finale, you’ll be sure you have him figured out. Just as you think you’ve fully quantified his faith, politics and dedication to the Church, Law’s character will throw a curveball completely out of left field that makes you realize you have no idea what’s in his head, and he likes it that way.
Law was born for this role; the man could clearly start a cult of personality of his own, should the entertainment industry ever grow tired of him. His enigmatic performance leaves the viewer feeling that, were he a real person, you would either want to run away from him and never look back, or try desperately to earn his affections.
“The Young Pope” introduces the viewer to a slew of high-level puppeteers behind the Holy Father, which conditions them to watch the show as they would any other show centered around politics. One naturally assumes that each puppeteer is out to serve their own interests exclusively, as it is made clear that many of them possess the liquid morality of any TV politician. However, the show goes out of its way to remind you that despite all the cynicism at the top of the Church, these tremendously powerful people in fact do believe in God, and to say that complicates things is an understatement.
The primary puppeteer is Cardinal Voiello, played masterfully by Silvio Orlando. The show’s most tantalizing subplot centers around Voiello’s instinct to undermine the new Pope at every critical juncture, as he clearly represents the demise of the Church to Voiello. This absolute certainty however, does not remain steadfast for long, as Belardo drops such insightful nuggets of wisdom and philosophy, that Voiello cannot help but wonder if he truly represents the voice of God.
Herein lies “The Young Pope’s” other biggest asset. Every little decision made by Belardo has the weight of 1 billion devoted, fearful followers behind it, and their spiritual fate may indeed hang in the balance. Belardo’s decisions, big and small, always have a sense of impossibly high-stakes surrounding it, as there is nothing with quite as high stakes as Eternity, after all. The show is a slow burn, but at its best, the burn is as hot as damnation itself.
Photo Courtesy of HBO