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One thing that is truly amazing about the “golden age of television” we find ourselves in today, is how cinematic the content has been. In the past, one automatically associated TV with a certain look, most often synonymous with lower production design and less quality visuals than the medium of film. However, now, due to more money being invested in long-form storytelling, enabling skilled filmmakers to become involved, much of today’s acclaimed shows would feel right at home on the big screen.
Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino’s new series The Young Pope, produced for HBO and airing in Ireland on Sky Atlantic, is indicative of this trend. It stars Jude Law as the fictional Pope Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo), an American cardinal suddenly chosen to be the pontiff. He was elected due to the actions of the older, scheming Cardinal Secretary of State, Voiello (Silvio Orlando, The Caiman), who believed that the young pope could easily be controlled and manipulated. Realising this, Belardo begins to rebel, waging a personal war on his new adversary while also breaking the rules set by his predecessors. Meanwhile, Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised the pope when he was boy, becomes a pawn in the two’s “games”.
The Young Pope is perhaps the only TV show I can think of where it feels like the viewer is missing something seeing it on the small screen. Sorrentino (who won the Best Foreign Language Oscar in 2014 for The Great Beauty), along with his long-time cinematographer Luca Bigazzi, makes his proceedings feel so grand and lavish. Whether it’s the sublime dream sequences showcasing the Vatican’s architecture, the ending of episode two where Pope Pius XIII, in silhouette, addresses his hordes from the balcony of his home or the constantly dizzying camera-work down long corridors – the show is always an exquisite sight to behold.
On a script-level, the series isn’t on quite as sure footing. Sorrentino has struggled in the past adapting his lyrical and off-beat dialogue into English as evident by 2011’s This Must Be the Place and, to a lesser extent, this year’s Youth. The Italian portions of The Young Pope, centring upon Voiello’s interactions with his native colleagues, are strange, wry and funny – leading critics to refer to the show as “Sorrentino’s Twin Peaks”. However, some of Law’s dialogue doesn’t translate as well, coming across as faux-philosophical and contrived. For instance, an interaction like, “What a telling joke … Jokes are never telling. They’re jokes”, would feel right at home in True Detective’s second season.
The show shares a lot in common with House of Cards in the sense that it centres upon an anti-hero and features plenty of political back-stabbing and intrigue. However, Belardo is, at times, a tough character to comprehend and therefore, warm to – unlike Frank Underwood. The first episode ends with him hinting heavily that he believes in no God, while the second sees him verbally attacking the people in his crowd who are non-believers. The pope does mention, early on, he is a “contradiction” – “Like Mary, virgin and mother”. However, this makes him a difficult figure to engage with in the sense that one never quite understands his motives or why he commits certain actions. There is also a childish, petulant streak to him – as evident by the scene in which he demands “cherry coke” for breakfast – which causes audience sympathy with him to wane. It must be noted however, these faults don’t fall on Law who gives a terrifically menacing performance – walking a thin line between captivating and unsettling, delivering cutting insults with a real viciousness.
Ultimately, the jury is still out as to whether the show will be a rousing success or a gorgeous misfire. However, judging by the first few episodes, Sorrentino’s amazing visuals, his peculiar sense of humour and the strong performances he mines out of his international cast are enough to warrant viewers seeking the show out.
The Young Pope is aired on Sky Atlantic.
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