January 17, 2017

SHOWBUZZDAILY Series Premiere + 1 Review: “The Young Pope”


THE YOUNG POPE:  Sunday/Monday 9PM on HBO – DVR Alert

The cinema-tization of television continues with HBO’s THE YOUNG POPE.  It’s been created and directed by the filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, who made 2013’s Best Foreign Film Oscar winner The Great Beauty and followed it with the gorgeous but not quite coherent Truth.  Sorrentino is an uncompromising auteur (he also made the completely crazed punk-rocker-turned-Nazi-hunter tale This Must Be The Place) , and it’s clear that HBO and its co-financiers wrote him a (very large) check and let him go about his business.  If Netflix’s two current signature dramas are The Crown and The OA, The Young Pope is both:  a story of great splendor and power cloaked in folds of enigma and mystery.

Jude Law plays the titular character, an orphan abandoned by his birth parents at a Catholic orphanage in New York run by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), and given the name Lenny Belardo.  Lenny rose through the ranks of the Church as protege to Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), and eventually surpassed him to become the newly elected Pope Pius XIII.

Sorrentino, who also wrote the initial two hours, plays a long game in establishing just what kind of man and Pope this Pius is going to be.  He’s presented as self-effacingly arrogant, insisting that his face be obscured in all Papal images, but in part because he knows how much more valuable his persona will be if it’s hidden.  He’s modern in temperament but abruptly removes a Cardinal from his duties once he finds out the man is homosexual.  He may or may not believe in God, and he certainly browbeats the Vatican confessor into disclosing to him the secrets imparted by his Cardinals.  He’s capable of both tenderness and cruelty, sometimes in the same conversation, and by the end of the second episode, he’s all but isolated himself from those who surround him, even Sister Mary, who he’s had brought to the Vatican as his special advisor.  It may well be that Sorrentino isn’t finished peeling the layers of this Pope’s onion, but the first homily Pius delivers to the public suggests that his true face is going to be authoritarian and perhaps even fascistic, shocking the lifetime Papal executives around him.  (And unintentionally–considering that the show had already been completed and shown overseas last fall–suggesting another new world leader whose true nature is a subject of endless debate and apprehension.)

Although Sorrentino is capable of a crisp dialogue scene when he feels like one, and in Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), he’s created an antagonist for Pius who may be more complicated than the opening sequences suggested, mostly he’s interested in mood and imagery.  The Young Pope has been designed (by Ludovica Ferrano) and photographed (by Luca Bigazzi) exquisitely, each luxuriant yet spare composition and room precisely judged, and the music by Lele Marchitelli is surprisingly eclectic.

It may be that 10 hours of The Young Pope will be a lot.  Sorrentino has an art-film sense of pacing, and so far there’s a relative lack of plot as such.  (HBO is playing the series over 5 weeks in an unusual Sunday/Monday configuration.)  But both hours so far have amped up the drama where necessary, especially in the climactic delivery of the homily in episode 2, so Sorrentino may be more of a storyteller than his emphasis on visuals suggests.  His casting of Law as the Pope is deft, making use of Law’s longtime rebellion against his matinee-idol looks, and his willingness to be both alluring and repellent.  Wherever the series goes over the rest of its run (it’s technically a “limited series,” although rumors of a 2d season have cropped up), it’s another example of television embracing the kind of filmmaking that not long ago would never have been found near a small screen.  It’s a miracle that may not quite be water into wine, but is remarkable nonetheless.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."