Warning: Mild spoilers ahead for “The Young Pope.”
If you’ve seen a commercial for “The Young Pope,” I’d forgive you (and give you absolution) for thinking the show is about a woke millennial who turns the Catholic church upside down and provides free vape pens to all.
HBO’s advertisements play up the edginess of the show. They make it look like like Pope Pius XIII — played by Jude Law — rejects the church’s teachings and exerts his power, which ultimately puts the church at risk. He smokes cigarettes, snarls at his enemies, and gets into bitter feuds with archbishops.
That’s not totally wrong, but it doesn’t capture the true essence of the series.
“The Young Pope” is like a beautiful, slower version of “House of Cards.”
“The Young Pope” reminds me of an arthouse project. It’s directed by Paolo Sorrentino, the Italian writer-director who’s best known for directing “Il Divo,” a biopic of former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti, and “The Great Beauty,” a love letter to the city of Rome and homage to Roberto Rossellini’s “Rome, Open City” and Federico Fellini’s “La Dolce Vita.”
Sorrentino also tends to premiere his movies at the Cannes Film Festival. So that’s the kind of filmmaker you’re dealing with. “The Young Pope” is more like “The Last Emperor” than “Deadpool.” Also, about 20% of the dialogue is in Italian, which is rare for a show aired in the United States.
The show is a bit like “House of Cards,” in the sense that it focuses on a political leader who exerts power ruthlessly. But while “House of Cards” is constantly engaged in a chess game of political maneuvers — who’s double-crossing who, who knows what — “The Young Pope” is far more langurous.
There’s a battle between Pius XIII and Cardinal Voiello, the Cardinal Secretary of State who struck the deal to install Pius in the papacy in the first place (played by Silvio Orlando), but the conflict is hardly as relentless or central to the show as it could be. Sorrentino isn’t afraid to indulge in languorous shots around the halls of St. Peter’s Basilica, or have long scenes where the pope talks about faith with a cardinal.
Pius XIII is an idiosyncratic figure, and a lot of the show delves into his internal contradictions. He was abandoned by his parents as a child, so his history as an orphan and his relationship with Sister Mary, the nun who adopted him (played by Diane Keaton), is the show’s central concern.
The position of pope is one of fatherhood for the Catholic Church — the word “pope” literally means “father” — so Pius has unusual ideas about what that means. Because his father abandoned him, he abandons the congregations, preferring to remain secluded within Vatican City and make the members of the Catholic Church go after him.
Pius XIII’s conservative views are a major plot point.
As far as his values go, Pius isn’t even moderately liberal — despite his relative youth. It’s true that he smokes cigarettes, likes Daft Punk, and his preferred breakfast is a Cherry Coke Zero. But his policies are harsh.
In being chosen as the pope, Pius XIII was picked by the other cardinals as a compromise between the more progressive ideas of Voiello and of Cardinal Spencer, a conservative American cardinal who was Pius’s mentor.
In his address to the congregation of cardinals, Pius calls for the end of evangelization and tolerance. “Tolerance — it doesn’t live here anymore,” he tells them. He also imposes a strict ban on abortion and prioritises rooting out homosexual clergy members, leaving a pedophile scandal on the back burner.
“The Young Pope” is a satire of power, a portrait of a pope as a young man, and asks important questions about theology. What it’s not is a rollicking blast to the church that many people have envisioned.
But that makes it no less of a special, excellent show.
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