HOW’S YOUR CATHOLIC GUILT? REVIEWING THE YOUNG POPE (2016)
Having recently reviewed Martin Scorcese’s Silence (2016) I thought it apt to follow it up by looking at a more contemporary vision of religion and faith with a review of Paulo Sorrentino’s HBO produced The Young Pope. Created, co-written and directed by uber-Italian-auteur Sorrentino it stars the impressive Jude Law as the eponymous lead protagonist. Law’s Lenny Belardo, rather than the crusty-almost-dead-looking-Popes we’re used to seeing behind bulletproof glass or delivering sermons from the Vatican, is in fact a younger, muscular and even sexy Pope.
Now, while I respect an individual’s right to believe what they want to, be it the teachings of Christ or Mohammed or Obi Wan Kenobi for that matter, I’m not a great fan of ‘Organized Religion.’ Indeed, ‘Organized Religion’ must be up there, along with global governments, Hitler, Spanish flu, and bubonic plague, as the main cause of wars, death and the suffering of millions. More specifically, Catholicism and its representatives have been at the forefront of negative events down the years including the Medieval Witch Hunts; Spanish Inquisitions; the tragedy of the ‘Fallen Women’ in 1920s-1950s Ireland; general acquiring of huge wealth while followers live in poverty; anti-gay and Pro-life ideologies; and as most recently seen in the film Spotlight (2015), a worldwide cover-up of paedophilia by Catholic priests. So how does Sorrentino approach such issues?
Well, his creative team’s approach to the material is not one of demonization but rather playful satire, wistful respect and a formidable testing of the Vatican as an institution. His desire it not to bring down the Catholic Church but rather purge the old and modernize its way of thinking and how it represents itself. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that it held my interest throughout and this was essentially down to the incredible characterisation and performances from Jude Law, Diane Keaton, James Cromwell and incomparable Sivio Orlando as the devious but ultimately soft-hearted-Napoli-fan Cardinal Voiello.
Over ten episodes of high quality dramatic analysis Sorrentino presents many of the issues facing the Catholic church now including: the paedophilia cases charged; the sexual behaviour, addictions and sins of Priests; the financial and political machinations of the Vatican; the importance of public relations and marketing the Vatican; and of course the very nature of faith and what it means to be a Catholic. These are indeed heavy subjects yet while serious like Scorcese’s Silence, The Young Pope contains some wry and delicate humour too. I mean ten episodes of a Vatican-based comedy it isn’t, but Paulo Sorrentino’s skewed look shows the priests and nuns, not as higher beings but rather flawed humans like the rest of us.
None are presented as more human than the lead character Lenny Belardo. Jude Law’s character is a surly, sarcastic and snappy dude from the start. He smokes and shows little respect for the elder priests, led by Cardinal Voiello and his prior mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell) who are as surprised as him that he somehow won the Papacy due to an advantageous split in the votes. Belardo vows to break the “old boys” network and spends much of the season locking heads with Voiello and Spencer in a bitter series of power plays. This young Pope does not suffer fools and refuses to be seen in public and reneges on his public relations duties. He even at times “jokes” about not believing in God; while his first speech delivered in silhouette is an unmitigated PR disaster.
Yet, at Belardo’s heart is a dark sadness due to his abandonment by his hippy parents, who while a young boy, dumped him at an orphanage run by Sister Mary (Keaton). Keaton portrays the surrogate Mother to Lenny and his best pal, Cardinal Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) as she supports him admirably during his papal duties. We see Belardo battle his elders, his faith, his anger, loneliness and sexual temptations which are put before him; all as he finds his voice as the Pope. It is a fascinating journey which really pulls you into the Pope’s internal and external strife.
Overall, this was a heavy yet rewarding series to watch. The scenery and imagery on show dazzle as Sorrentino and his cinematographer conjure some startling holy visions and beautiful architectural compositions. The writing is also of the highest quality with some magnificently lofty, pious and poetic speeches throughout. Being very clever Sorrentino both pokes a teasing stick at the Vatican but also praises the Lord in his own inimitable way, creating several fascinating characters in the process. Jude Law has never ever been better in a show which while initially testing rewards those who keep the faith.