Review: 'The Young Pope' is a heavenly campy drama
The Young Pope begs to answer the question: What if the next Pope were young and American?
And also Jude Law.
Enter Lenny Balardo (Law), dubbed Pope Pius XIII, an arrogant, highly-conservative, self-serving orphan who's just become the head of the Catholic church.
You could say The Young Pope is timely.
His Holiness is unpredictable and a master manipulator with scattered worldviews no one seems to be able to figure out. His ascension to the top of the papacy came as a surprise to many who still clearly think he's unqualified. Very few in Vatican City are happy about Lenny's promotion.
The cardinals and priests around him scramble to keep his impulses in check as he refuses to adhere to many ancient traditions of the office. Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) is often Lenny's punching bag.
The series is a joint international venture from Sky Atlantic and HBO and originally aired in Italy. Director Paolo Sorrentino (Oscar and Golden Globe winner for The Great Beauty) helped bring Vatican City to the small screen in this 10-episode limited series on HBO.
In the series press notes, Sorrentino says his drama is about solitude and the loneliness that comes with great power. Ambition, oppression, liberation and power dynamics are huge themes in The Young Pope, all crammed into the tiny nation-state of Vatican City.
The series charts Lenny's humble beginnings and details the flaws in the system that led him to the seat of the Holy Father.
The first episode is a cold open of sorts, illustrating a surreal dream where Lenny crawls out from under a pile of babies while also showcasing the stunning beauty of Vatican City. Yeah, it's weird. But as the series goes on, a more conventional narrative starts to evolve.
Lenny is hell bent on restoring the church to a sort of golden age (Make Catholicism Great Again?) and trampling tradition and protocols. He frequently leaves a trail of stunned Cardinal faces in his wake.
His first order of business is to forbid any merchandise with his image, citing Salinger, Kubrick and Banksy as his cryptic inspiration.
"I am no one ... only Christ exists."
Lenny quickly establishes authority by squashing his inferiors into submission, gliding around like a newly-minted mob boss. Those around him think he's either a misunderstood prophet or a masquerading sociopath.
He's an impenetrable character, save for Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the woman who raised him after hippie parents left him at an orphanage, and mentor Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell).
Keaton is restrained and still motherly to Lenny, though we get peeks at her wilder side like a sleep shirt that says "I'm a virgin, but this is an old shirt." Cromwell is ferocious and clearly still mad his young protege gets to wear the papal tiara.
The aesthetics feel like an eccentric foreign film — lush gardens, the stunning art of St. Peter's Basilica, fashion-forward papal vestiges (Law had 15 different sets of clothing). But just when the prestige drama yawn is about to escape from your mouth, LMFAO's I'm Sexy and I Know It blasts through the speakers while Lenny dons his most spectacular papal robes.
Like His Holiness, The Young Pope is radically unpredictable and revolutionary. Its shockingly modern themes combat with sacred religious traditions, but with enough deadpan humor to keep us on our toes.
The world belongs to Pope Pius XIII — an enigma in a pristine white tracksuit — and we're just living in it.
Contact Chelsea Tatham at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow @chelseatatham.
If you watch
The Young Pope premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 15 on HBO. It airs new episodes Sundays and Mondays.