The Young Pope is one of those over-complex English-language TV shows that requires subtitles. It clearly contains deep, dark ruminations on faith and power – but it’s a struggle to understand what’s going on or what the characters are talking about. And at its heart is a character who doesn’t convince one bit. This show does not have a pope.
Jude Law is the recently elected Pius XIII, a conservative American of just 47 years. His youth is illustrated with shots of his naked bottom as he dresses for work. Pius has to navigate the Machiavellian world of the Vatican, while keeping a few steps ahead of a blackmailing cardinal who has a wart on his cheek as big as an Oreo. Director Paolo Sorrentino – the genius responsible for the movies Il Divo and The Great Beauty – specialises in casting small, sinful men against mighty Italian backdrops and inviting us to admire the view. When Pius addresses St Peter’s Square, we think –uncomfortably – of Mussolini. Elegance in Sorrentino’s Italy is the lace that masks rot.
The problem is that everything is covered up: motivations are a mystery. Sure, we’re supposed to be left wanting to know more – but the Pope is so opaque that audiences are in danger of losing interest. That’s a pity because this is Law’s best performance in decades. His Pius is witty, human, and uncomfortably balanced between saintly and wicked. He is not, however, a pope. He doesn’t look like a pope for a start, being ridiculously young. There is also little evidence of holiness and absolutely no charm. In some scenes he appears sociopathic, reducing the faithful to tears. I can’t believe this character would be trusted to read the numbers at the parish’s bingo night – let alone shepherd Mother Church.
But then the character isn’t purely Catholic. He’s the product of a very Italian imagination. This is a TV series about the Italian condition, about the experience of growing up in a country that is at once puritan and prurient, graceful and corrupt. All countries have these qualities. Italy just exhibits them with greater style than anyone else.
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