There's been a log of snickering over the whole concept of The Young Pope. Which, yeah, I guess I can see where that comes from, though a lot of it seems to boil down to a certain discomfort with the whole idea of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution. That aside, it's hard to imagine people taking the same attitudes if, say, Martin Scorsese and Rodrigo Prieto sat down to make a series like this.
And I really do mean that as a serious comparison. Unlike even most HBO series, The Young Pope is written and directed entirely by one man: Paolo Sorrentino. Sure, that name probably doesn't mean much to most Americans, but I'd have expected Film Twitter at least to recognize the Oscar winner behind The Great Beauty, not to mention This Must Be the Place and Youth. Along with his long-time cinematographer, Luca Bigazzi, Sorrentino makes some of the most visually striking films today, adding graceful, sweeping curves to the meticulous, rectilineal geometry we expect from a director like Wes Anderson.
They don't just look good. In his Italian films like The Great Beauty and Il Divo, Sorrentino offers incisive commentary on Roman society and politics. He bears a healthy distrust of institutions, both formal and informal, and of the men -- and it's always men -- who turn them into silos of power, perverting them from their intended purposes. The same is true for The Young Pope, which offers a drama of court intrigue in the only court that matters anymore now that most formal monarchies have been replaced with some form of constitutional democracy.
We begin with a dream: Pius XIII, formerly Lenny Cardinal Belardo (Jude Law) crawls out from under a pile of babies to stride across the Piazza San Marco at night, an setting Sorrentino reuses from Youth. He wakes in his papal apartment, slips into his Havaianas, showers, and dresses in his white vestments. His Tivoli radio sporadically fuzzes out. He passes in procession through the halls of St. Peter's Basilica, through rooms where various cardinals and lesser clergy stand arranged as if pieces in some grand game of strategy. He glides towards the balcony where he will address the faithful, the rain clouds parting as he steps out through the curtains. His words shock the assembled crowd with their radical modernity, overturning Church dogma on social issues across the board. Three cardinals faint dead away. But he is interrupted by a whisper from a cardinal at his side: "What are you saying, Lenny? What's all of this nonsense? You are not the Pope. I am the Pope."
Pius wakes up again, the dream fading slowly, a premonition. The man from his dream is Angelo Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), serving as both Camerlengo and Cardinal Secretary of State, administering both financial and diplomatic authority over the Holy See. He has the Roman Curia running pretty much how he likes it, and his main concern is continuity. We learn from a quartet of cardinals functioning as a sort of Greek -- or is that Roman? -- chorus that the selection of Lenny Belardo was intended to offer the world a "telegenic puppet" who could be easily manipulated as a charismatic figurehead fronting the actual power held by Cardinal Voiello and his inner circle. Lenny's mentor, Michael Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) would have been too strong and independent, which would upset the positions of even those cardinals aligned against the man they joke is the real meaning of "The Holy Spirit" inside the Vatican's walls. But Pius shows an unexpected strength of his own, immediately setting a hard and formal tone even with the majordomo and his staff.
Pius seems to be that most dangerous type of person to head a modern state: a believer. Voiello can barely be bothered to participate in more than the outward trappings of the faith. He tosses off his confession dismissively, claiming that the Papal house's confessor, Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo), would not even understand his real sins of finance and diplomacy, all the while tapping away on his mobile phone. He settles on some trivially impure thoughts about the Venus of Willendorf, which is evidently a Vatican holding. The chorus might not completely trust Voiello, but they find comfort in the continuity of his secret leadership. But, the venerable Cardinal Caltanissetta (Toni Bertorelli) wonders what Spencer will do now that his own machinations have been thwarted in favor of his "beloved, detested protégé".
On cue, we cut to Spencer, fragmented in a triple mirror, eyeing a straight razor before two nuns wrestle it away from him.
Pius tells Don Tommaso that his only sin is that his conscience does not accuse him of anything. He learns that Tommaso hears the confessions of the entire Curia, as well as several lay employees. But he must rush off to the heliport to receive his most important meeting of the day, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised the orphaned Lenny Belardo back in New York, even as he leaves Cardinal Voiello and his confidant Fr. Federico Amatucci (Gianluca Guidi) waiting in his office. On the plane, she read a description of Rome as "a suburb of Vatican City." "That's not exactly true," Pius laughs off gently, though not entirely, "but it will be." Sr. Mary counsels him on the magnitude of the task before him. A billion people building their lives around the decisions he will make. She has suffered along with him, but she insists that his own troubles must take a back seat to the business of the Church.
And yet, if I might interject here, Pius observed earlier that he is "a contradiction". The Church teaches that even Christ himself was fully human as well as fully divine, and the Pope can be no less human. He is Pius XIII, Bishop of Rome, Vicar of Christ, Supreme Pontiff, Sovereign of the Vatican, and so on, and at the same time he is Lenny Belardo, the orphan who still carries the wooden bowl of his father's pipe everywhere he goes. He can no more step back from his past sufferings and let them fade as things of this Earth than Jesus could forsake his humanity and death in Gethsemane.
When Pius finally meets with Voiello, the Cardinal wishes his reign to be long, radiant, and fruitful. Pius says he will settle for long, which draws a giggle out of Voiello, and an comment on the telling joke. Pius is not amused, "Jokes are never telling; they're jokes." But of course the two men's veiled comments are very telling, and nowhere near as joking as they seem on the surface. Voiello means to bring this new Pope to heel, telling him how things work. But Pius chafes at these directives from the start, exerting his own dominance right down to his demand that the Cardinal Secretary of State personally prepare a cup of American filter-drip coffee.
The dogfight joined, every suggestion Voiello makes Pius immediately countermands. Every official put forward, Pius says he will meet with later, and when Voiello predicts this pattern he switches it up. Voiello puts forward a candidate for the Pope's special assistant, surely intending Gemelli as another string he can pull, but Pius instead names Sr. Mary herself to the position. Even the button under the papal desk which can cut short any meeting is seen for what it is: a lie. To the operationalist Voiello, it's a mechanism to get things done, but to Pius as a man of principle, it's a sin. He wraps up their meeting by laying the groundwork for his plans to return the Church to its former pomp and glory, and by telling Voiello that Sr. Mary will also report back on all the Cardinal's doings.
After that meeting, Pius has the Master of Ceremonies, Monsignor Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara), close St. Peter's Basilica so they can observe Michelangelo's Pietà in private. Lenny always had an aversion to tourists, who only ever pass through a place rather than inhabiting it. They bond over Gutierrez' mother, winning the new Pope an ally. They discuss the rumors that fly through the Vatican, almost before the events themselves have taken place. In America, Pius says, they call it "gossip". In the Vatican, it is "calumny", an altogether older and more fraught term, whose choice shifts the connotation from mere bad taste to active sin.
But it's a sin that Pius himself is far from innocent of. Meeting late at night with Don Tommaso on the roof of the Basilica, in the shadow of its massive dome, he asks the confessor to break confidence, supplying him with the information he will need to take and hold power against the established order of the Curia, and of Cardinal Voiello, who even now is seeking out his own ammunition against this young pope.