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Young and charming, newly elected Pius XIII, aka Lenny Belardo, is the first American Pope in history. His ascension appears to be the result of a simple, effective media strategy implemented by the College of Cardinals. In the Vatican, however, the prevailing wisdom is the church's leaders have chosen a mysterious figure as their guiding force. And Pius XIII proves to be the most mysterious and contradictory of them all. As Belardo begins his reign, he is stubbornly resistant to the Vatican stewards, instead relying on Sister Mary to serve as his chief adviser. While she urges him to focus on leading his billion followers, the young pope shows little interest in making himself known, either to the College of Cardinals or to the masses. The 10-episode drama series stars Jude Law in the title role and Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, a nun from the U.S. now living in Vatican City.
Sorrentino's The Young Pope is not the papal House of Cards
I was among many others who rushed to compare Paolo Sorrentino's Vatican drama The Young Pope to Beau Willimon's political masterpiece House of Cards after watching the first couple of episodes of the former. Obviously, I was wrong. Despite the unmistakable similarities between the enigmatic newly-elected young American pope Lenny Belardo, a.k.a. Pius XIII, and the evil mastermind statesman Frank Underwood, both shows aim at two completely distinctive targets, and although it is true that institutional religion and politics share so much in common in terms of manipulation and intrigue, Willimon and Belardo evidently play different tunes to approach such thorny issues.
Once you get past the third episode, you will realize that Belardo is nothing like Underwood. He might be the most diabolical pope you would see on screen but his vulnerability brings the human back into his character and makes it contradictory, yet more believable. A mixture of kindness and cruelty, faith and doubt, innocent childhood and bitter adulthood, finely portrayed by Jude Law in a role that will later be marked in his career as the departure from Hollywood's 'pretty boy' branding and an ensuing history of fumbling and the beginning of more mature choices and performances.
The entire series is based on this kind of alluring contradiction. I'm not Catholic, not even Christian, but I honestly cannot see how this show can be offensive to anyone. Sorrentino's take on religion and the system of belief in general is very far from liberal or conservative absolutism; he uses his renowned magical aestheticism to create a space for all voices to converse – a space where religion and art collide in a supernova of beauty on every possible level. Unlike Willimon who wages a war against the political system to reveal its inherent ugliness, Sorrentino gently takes us to the heart of conservative dogma to show that religion is a personal story whose contradictory nature must be nurtured and celebrated. In the very first scene, our young pope, Lenny Belardo, struggles to crawl out of a heap of sleeping babies.
It is a story about finding maturity in faith.
The eccentric, brilliant mix of intellectual aestheticism and tongue-in-cheek comedy of The Young Pope is only made better by the almost perfect casting. Silvio Orlando particularly stands out as the football fanatic, Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello who even though represents the Pope's nemesis, is undoubtingly the most comic character in the series. Cheeky contradiction invades all aspects of Sorrentino's drama: narrative juxtaposition, cinematography, music etc. Imagine listening to "I'm Sexy and I Know It" in the background of a sequence where the Vatican's most esteemed authority gets dressed for the Cardinals' address.
Not to mention that Sorrentino's frames are a source of pleasure in their own right, I have truly enjoyed watching every minute of The Young Pope. Emotional, witty, beautiful, funny, original the show has all elements I need to keep me anxiously waiting for a second season. Don't be long, Mr. Sorrentino!
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