Pius XIII (Jude Law) and Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) examine his domain.

Pontificating Drama: The Glory and Absurdity of HBO’s ‘The Young Pope’

HBO's The Young Pope is a fascinating and ambitious filmic endeavor that's remarkably unpredictable, conceited, and foreign to the North American eye.

Few shows in recent memory attempt the grandeur and gravitas of HBO’s compelling but somewhat unintelligible new series The Young Pope.

Unlike HBO hits that willingly embrace highly marketable genres like fantasy, crime, or romance, The Young Pope is an ambitious filmic endeavor that eschews any categorization by genre. The show is remarkably unpredictable, conceited, and foreign to the North American eye.

Led by Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope tells the story of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), a “young pope” from the United States who takes the title of Pius XIII, a choice that strangely embraces Pius XII’s fame for extortion and murder, among other sins.

The story commences as Belardo assumes his reign and begins a mission to align the church with his vision of ultraconservative Catholic beliefs and practices. Central to his campaign is a complete revision of the papal image from an open, charismatic leader, to a dark, secretive figure who issues decrees and proclamations from his shady, malevolent grandstand in St. Peter’s Square.

The show borrows from stories of European and Latin American dictators more than contemporary popes; it’s also clearly inspired by a long-standing tradition of European absurdism from the 20th century. Such unlikely motifs provoke a sense of pretension that mirrors the bravado of the show’s protagonist, a man who spends most of his day engaged in disinterested conversations and “portentous smoking” (as NPR’s “Pop Culture Happy Hour” succinctly put it).

Such shameless displays of elitism provoke the sense of disconnection with North American audiences that critics have regularly observed in their bizarre fascination, complete confusion, or spirited dismissals of The Young Pope.

Curiously, Bernardo isn’t particularly young, and aside from Law’s interpretation of North American English, there’s nothing noticeably “American” about him. He only seems young because everyone around him is ancient, and he often comes across as a caricature of someone from the United States.

There’s no better example than in the first episode, when Belardo sits down for his first papal breakfast. He looks across a table of pastries, espresso, and fruit prepared by a kind old Italian woman, who’s made meals for the pope for decades. She kisses the young pope to welcome him and wishes him a pleasant meal, but Lenny is anything but impressed.

He says he eats very little and demands his preferred breakfast, a single Cherry Coke Zero. Moreover, he reprimands the old woman for kissing his face and tells the other members of the breakfast committee that all interactions with him should be professional and distant.

The scene is ridiculous not only because of its shameless product placement, but because the pope’s rejection of Italian gastronomy and physical affect portray Belardo as an uncultured, self-righteous, and stereotypically ignorant American. In short, he seems like what an Italian might imagine a young pope from across the pond to be like, rather than a “real” pontiff from the United States.

The young pope’s de-facto mother, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), plays a central but ambiguous role in the development of the story. The pope appoints her to his inner circle of trusted followers, and she’s tasked with spying on the cardinals and supporting the pope during meetings with visitors.

A series of flashbacks reveal that Sister Mary cared for Belardo at an orphanage after his parents abandoned him as a small child. The flashbacks also suggest that his aggressive behavior is the product of childhood trauma, a pain he’s trying to inflict upon believers who’ve not suffered as much as he has.

The troubled youth and persistent appearance of a maternal figure recall deranged characters from horror flicks like Norman Bates, as well as his more dramatic ancestor, Oedipus Rex. Belardo tempts both fates with his decisions, and the viewer is constantly left to wonder whether the protagonist is on a path of sociopathic harm or suicidal self-destruction.

These and other questions are never immediately resolved, and neither audiences nor the other characters know what the pope is thinking or what his ultimate plan truly is. The sense of unknowing yields a sense of intrigue that keeps the show compelling, but it also gives the larger sensation that the action isn’t advancing or moving toward a foreseeable culmination.

In this respect, nobody is more confused or frustrated than cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Vatican’s secretary of state. The sly, charismatic Voiello is one of the show’s best characters for his humor and cunning, and he’s Belardo’s greatest enemy. Voiello works closely with the pope, but he must ignore his better judgment to follow the orders of a younger, more powerful man whom he doesn’t trust. Consequently, Voiello quickly turns on Belardo, and the two engage in a series-long game of secrets, scandals, and conspiracies to bring the other down.

And then there’s the kangaroo.

The show is stocked with moments of strange dialogue, comic props, and absurdist devices. There’s no better example than the kangaroo Belardo receives as a gift. His advisors tell the pope to relinquish the creature, but the animal fascinates him, and he lets it stay in his papal garden.

This leads to several scenes when the young pope unexpectedly comes face to face with the creature while on walks. The unspoken assumption is that Belardo is some type of Saint Francis-like character who communicates with the animals, but the whole thing exudes a demonic component, because the kangaroo looks more sinister than cute.

Some have understood the show as an allegory for contemporary politics in the United States. The young pope’s outsider status, conservative politics, and manipulation of mass media indeed recall similarities with the contemporary head of the executive branch. It might be more useful, however, to understand the show in relation to larger conservative movements taking place throughout Europe: a place with a true history of papal power, abuse, and fascist politics.

The Young Pope is more enjoyable, however, without these connections. The show mesmerizes with its stagecraft, as each scene takes place in locations that replicate the official spaces of the papal office. The wardrobe is also dazzling, as formal gowns, crowns, and chasubles are joined with the young pope’s informal, tight-fitting array of white pajamas, and his casual papal hoodie.

The sound track is also notable, as intense scenes of papal drama mix with popular music from classic instruments, shameless bouts of timpani, and electronic dance music. The audio is startling, engaging, and blends the solemnity of church with the excitement of an Italian dance club.

Finally, what is perhaps most unusual about The Young Pope is that each episode is like a full plate of gnocchi and crusty bread: one doesn’t finish an episode wanting to immediately consume another. Instead, viewers may be more tempted to take a deep breath, wonder if maybe that’s enough for one night, and still watch one more iteration before bedtime.

The show is unique, as well as a delicious escape from reality and the traditional formulas of popular culture.

RATING 8 / 10