The Young Pope is a show that begins with the titular young pope, played by movie star Jude Law, emerging from under a pile of sleeping babies in St. Peter’s Square only to wake up from a fever dream. Then he showers, gets dressed, and delivers a homily about the benefits of play, happiness, and masturbation to a crowd of scandalized, aghast faithful. One of the cardinals expels him from the church, and he wakes up from another dream in a burst of sweat, still the pope. So no, the show is not especially subtle.
The Young Pope has been out in the world for a couple of months now after it originally aired on Sky Atlantic in Europe, but the lead-up to the American broadcast has been primarily characterized by an inundation of memes. Yes, the premise of The Young Pope is as close to a joke as you can get in two words. (What if the pope… was young?) But the real genius of the show is that any imaginative absurdity you throw at it will come back at you tenfold.
If you came into The Young Pope expecting a blissfully unaware series pushing its hyperbolic dramatic conceit in a series of plodding, obvious scenes, you’re in for a surprise: writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is nothing if not a master craftsman. In particular, the opening sequence of Lenny Belardo (that’s the name of the pope) walking through the Vatican to get to his homily is masterfully shot, creating a sort of dreamy religious diorama filled with the expectant, awed faces of nuns, priests, and minor church officials, many of whom will become important characters in this papacy—all set to the hypnotic strains of Labradford’s “By Chris Johnston, Craig Markva, Jamie Evans,” (a song that recurs as something of a motif during the rest of the show).
Opening with a dream sequence (or two) might be a bit on the nose, but it also gives Sorrentino an opportunity to use some bizarre, engrossing camera techniques. There are quick cuts to groups of cardinals being framed like toys, a water cooler that magically appears in the middle of a room, and, most importantly, the zoom in on Jude Law’s face as he prepares to talk about masturbation, accompanied by a loud, ridiculous “boing.” You might not know what the hell is going on, but it’s already clear that Sorrentino knows exactly what he’s doing.
Lenny, on the other hand, is still learning about what it’s going to mean for him to be the pope. (As an American, he doesn’t really know his way around the Vatican, which leads to one of the funniest moments of the episode when he accidentally walks into a group touring St. Peter’s Basilica.) Most of his waking moments in this episode are spent meeting the people who are going to variously support and oppose him during his reign, then acting extraordinarily rude to them.
In particular, there’s Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican secretary of state who appears in Lenny’s dream to tell him he is not, in fact, the pope. Played by Silvio Orlando, Voiello is a snake in the grass whose pleasant facade might let him to get away with holding onto the reins of power. (In an expository meeting of some other cardinals, he’s described as the devil incarnate, and the savviest political operator in the Vatican.) But if there’s one thing Pius XIII is not, it is pleasant.
In the very first waking scene of the show, he first claims ownership over another human being (his majordomo), then makes an old woman cry (Sister Bice, a nun and his personal cook, who committed the sin of being too familiar and touching his face). Lenny toys with Voiello, letting him think he’s going to get to keep making church policy, uses a button designed to get him out of uncomfortable meetings, and assigns Diane Keaton to be his boss.
Surprise, Diane Keaton is here, too! It’s still unclear to me (and, I think, to the rest of the world) why she agreed to be on this show, but I am so glad she did. She plays Sister Mary, the nun who took Lenny in when he was abandoned by his parents—an event we see in a brief flashback positing the orphanage as a terrifying Gothic building, a black hole that leeched out the sunny parts of Lenny’s childhood. (At least in his memory.) Keaton doesn’t get a ton to do in this episode, but it’s so much fun to see her wearing a habit and interacting with Law that, for now, it doesn’t really matter—the fact of her relationship with the pope, as well as her blissful surprise in being assigned as Voiello’s overseer, is already enough to justify her presence on the show.
There are some other people we’re introduced to over the course of the episode (one to keep an eye on: Monsignor Gutierrez, the Vatican master of ceremonies played by Javier Cámara), but the most important for now is Don Tommaso, the Vatican’s mousy, frightened confessor. He’s a sixtysomething man who cowers in fear before the pope, and is easily induced to commit to breaking the sanctity of the confession—both because Lenny, as the pope, is theoretically meant to be the recipient of all of the information and because, more cynically, he’s promised the priest a cardinalship.
Tommaso tells Lenny that Voiello has had erotic fantasies about the Venus Of Willendorf, a woman-shaped statue likely created to represent ancient values of fertility. Lenny seems like an all-knowing supervillain when he tells Voiello to stop fantasizing about the statue, but we’ve been sufficiently let in on the machinations behind the scenes to begin to understand the institutional portrait Sorrentino is painting: a religious organization founded on principles of mercy and holiness that runs on gossip and suspicion.
Now, that institution might be running on a foundation nothing at all: In a climactic revelation at the end of the episode, Lenny admits to Tomasso that he doesn’t believe in God. This seems like a pretty bad thing to believe if you are the pope. Is the young pope having a crisis of faith? Is he a sociopath? Or maybe, like an ordinary human person, he’s just conflicted about his religion? Men of God: They’re just like us.
- We don’t see much of James Cromwell’s Cardinal Spencer–Lenny’s mentor in New York—in this episode, but what we do see is rather distressing: overwhelmed with despair at losing the papal election, Spencer attempts suicide, only to be saved by some nuns.
- There are too many great shots to go through all of them and still finish with a word counter shorter than some Gospels, but I can’t stress enough how great the framing of people’s faces are in this episode, as well as the Vatican helipad (which will become an important location) as the site of Sister Mary’s arrival.
- In case you missed the point of the show, Lenny is told that John Paul II forbade smoking in the Vatican, only to reply, “There’s a new pope now.”
- I am deeply, feverishly obsessed with this show, and am very excited to journey through it with you. If you are so inclined, you can also follow along with Papal Bull, a podcast I made about it, here. Let’s have some fun.