THERE’S ONE major difference between The Young Pope and the new president: The Young Pope is beautiful to look at.
Otherwise, the parallels between the fantastic new series from Italian director Paolo Sorrentino and our new Orange Oval Officer are uncanny. Since The Young Pope has been in the works for years, it’s an eerie coincidence, but that’s evidence of the power of art—in its best forms, it can be reactive and predictive.
The titular character of The Young Pope—currently airing in the US each Sunday and Monday on HBO—is significantly smarter than our president: He’s Bannon and Trump rolled into one Machiavellian despot. But unlike the republic-destroying aims of Trump and Bannon, the motives of Lenny Belardo, AKA Pope Pius XIII, are not entirely clear. In the hands of Sorrentino, we despise and empathize with him in equal measure, recognizing the anguish of his troubled childhood and recoiling at how he’s applied an orphan’s self-sufficiency to reach the highest office in the Catholic Church.
Jude Law is dynamite in the role, the best and most menacing he’s been since The Talented Mr. Ripley. Lenny’s path to the papacy comes from an undistracted, almost martyr-like relationship with God, and he seems to require the same sacrifice from his flock. The show has a lot to say about Catholicism and spirituality in general—its main thesis seems to be that our attitudes toward the divine are in fact mirrors reflecting our own individual dispositions. But if the religious overtones of the show turn you off, you’ll miss out—Sorrentino’s got much to say about human nature for even the godless among us, as he juxtaposes the political machinations of the Vatican against the players’ struggles with the silent unknown.
Law’s not the only actor pulling weight. Diane Keaton, playing a nun, doesn’t do much to distinguish herself, but Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s Secretary of State, is astounding: a portly, lisping, scheming cardinal with a prominent mole who puts greater faith in his favorite soccer players than he does in Christ. The other actors are just as wonderful, and Sorrentino—who directs and writes or co-writes each episode—has a painterly, Fellini-esque affinity for faces, framing and lighting them so that they tell fascinating stories even in stillness.
As beautiful as it is, the best thing about The Young Pope is that it’s fucking hilarious. Sorrentino’s most audacious filmmaking pranks land brilliantly, as in the opening credits, in which a meteor crashes through a series of religious artworks while Law serenely strolls past. The director has made some astounding feature films, particularly 2013’s The Great Beauty, but here he makes perfect use of all the extra room a TV series affords, presenting idea after idea with confidence and curiosity.
The Young Pope is unlike anything else on TV—exquisite and odd and flamboyant and thoughtful. It’s also a gratuitously delicious confection, a show that lets a kangaroo loose inside western civilization’s most hallowed institution (to be clear: The Young Pope does this quite literally). Even as its eyes are on the heavens, its tongue is firmly in cheek, puncturing the church while examining why we cling to institutions like it in the first place. In a world we experience subjectively, what is it about us that hungers for an authority structure that can offer us some sort of objective version of reality? And in what ways are those we place in power reflections of ourselves?