‘The Young Pope’ flaunts absurdity with stylistic self awareness, absorbing performances

Gianni Fiorito/HBO/Courtesy
"The Young Pope" | HBO
Grade: B+

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A man, controversial in his leadership methods, miraculously ascends to the most powerful position of his state. Comparisons between “House of Cards” and “The Young Pope” are apt. Despite similarities though, HBO’s new series, created by Paolo Sorrentino (who co-wrote and directed the entire season), is undeniably its own fiery vision of an unconventional man with incomparable power.

In its first five episodes, “The Young Pope” is a toothsome statement in long-form storytelling. The show follows Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who goes by the papal name Pius XIII, as he commences his papacy as the first pope from the U.S. and the youngest in over 450 years. Originally chosen by fellow cardinals as the amenable papal candidate, Belardo turns out to be an uncontrollable wildcard. He’s a walking controversy — creating concern for his belief in God while committing acts only a man of faith could, developing potential for a prosperous church while enacting a rage that instills fear in the public.

From the beginning, “The Young Pope” establishes itself as a strange show, injecting its spirit and its self-aware sense of absurdity into its style. The soundtrack ranges from heavenly hymns to iconic rock-and-roll, from a church choir to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It.” Musical contrast between the religious and pop/rock could’ve resulted in a tonal mess. But somehow, Sorrentino manages to harmonize the two. We may be bewildered when Belardo dresses in the papal regalia to the tune of LMFAO. But the effect of that scene is altered by the one right after, when he addresses the cardinals and tells them that the church is pathetically weak. The juxtaposition of various moments of absurdity next to gripping drama reveals an ego that’s aware of the ridiculousness of the robes he wears but relishes in them regardless.

Belardo’s ego, however, would not be so convincing if not for the utterly delicious and absorbing performance by Jude Law. Here, Law showcases his mastery in delivering monologues as well as his ability to overpower minor characters without dwarfing any member of the ensemble. He employs a specific physicality through his graceful and grand yet subtle gestures, through the magnetism of his eyes to either the subject in front of him or to God above and through his rumbling New York accent that commands the Catholic spirit as heavily as the oldest Italian. Law inhabits the papal regalia not as clothing swathed about him, but rather as skin.

Though Law is the most commanding actor, the ensemble makes “The Young Pope” a prestigious show rather than just a vehicle for its star. James Cromwell, as Belardo’s symbolic father Cardinal Spencer, offers great emotion as a man of deep faith that is tested when he fails to become pope himself. Silvio Orlando, as Vatican secretary of state, offers a tongue-in-cheek yet vulnerable performance as a man on constant damage control for Belardo. And Javier Cámara, a Cardinal close to Belardo, looks as though he were pulled directly from a 16th-century masterpiece by Raphael.

Where “The Young Pope” may lose viewers is in its serialized plot. At moments, the plot is erratic. At others, it’s over the top. Often, the significance of a story beat is unclear, especially when so many plot lines run at once.

But the show makes up for it in two realms. Firstly, “The Young Pope” orchestrates a dirty behind-the-scenes look at Vatican City. Filled with bribery, seduction, coverups and more, it offers viewers a salivating sense of intrigue.

Secondly, the story’s erratic nature may be reflective of Belardo himself. He continues to struggle with the fact that he was abandoned by his parents. He borderline stole the election from his father figure, putting Spencer at odds with him. All of this attributes to Belardo’s difficulty to pace out a path he’s confident in. He’s a masterful snake at feigning the sense of a plan — perhaps it’ll be revealed that he’s had something up his papal sleeves this whole time. But it’s clear that Belardo struggles as a human and thus as pope.

“The Young Pope” challenges audiences with its eccentric vision and exaggerated storytelling. But, in soaking up the sexy and addictive power of its ideas, we have reason to return for the pope’s final five appearances.

“The Young Pope” airs Sunday and Monday nights on HBO. College students may visit https://student.hbonow.com 

Kyle Kizu is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Tweet him at @kyle_kizu.