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March 1, 2024

HBO’s The Young Pope is complex and engaging

By NATHAN BICK | February 16, 2017


georges biard/cc-by-sa-3.0 Jude Law plays the radical Pope Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope.

This Sunday marks the end of this season of The Young Pope, the new television drama series created and directed by Italian Paolo Sorrentino. With nine episodes having aired to date, the 10th and final installment is poised to be a major event.

For the binge watchers out there, with each episode running around one hour each, it might be a challenge to catch up for the live finale, but it’s well worth it. Likewise for the more deliberately paced viewer, the experience of watching The Young Pope is looking to be a good one.

The titular character is the former American Archbishop of New York Lenny Belardo, now newly elected as Pope Pius XIII. He is literally young (as a pope around fifty years of age), but figuratively he is young as well — radical, passionate and innovative in surprising ways.

Portrayed by the well-known English actor Jude Law, Pope Pius XIII’s complex character profile is the main draw of the series. Lenny as a man is shown to be both harsh and loving, capable of dogmatic fanaticism toward the world at large and also tenderly comforting toward those he loves.

While in each separate scene Lenny is convincing, fully owning the mood of the moment, comparing scenes leaves the viewer at times questioning whether Lenny possesses separate alternate personas.

This is the interplay between Lenny Belardo and Pope Pius XIII. Lenny is an abandoned orphan still searching for his parents, a gentle priest, and an ambitious scholar and careerist. Pius XIII, heavily implied to be divine, is almost fanatically devoted to God, and is a mindful public relations guru.

Taking this unpredictability as a pillar of Lenny’s overarching personality helps the character resolve over the series as a full-bodied and complete persona. If forced to label the series, one might best describe The Young Pope as a character study. It is an analysis and portrayal of a certain combination of traits distinguishing a unique individual.

Alongside Jude Law are quality supporting actors and actresses. Most notable are Diane Keaton playing Sister Mary, the American nun who raised Lenny at the orphanage, and Silvio Orlando playing Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello, the cunning behind-the-scenes ruler of Vatican City and the Catholic Church.

Besides these apparent attributes, the series has something in store for a wide variety of viewers. Those interested in court intrigue and covert political machinations will enjoy the infighting that ensues after Pius XIII’s marked departure from tradition.

Cinephiles will appreciate the clever cinematography and the composition of the frames themselves. Art or architecture enthusiasts will jump at the opportunity to immerse themselves in the full beauty of Vatican City and Rome.

And of course, the infusion of the religious and the mystical to the series raises questions both within the show and within the viewer. Music lovers will enjoy the soundtrack, which is as unpredictable as the show’s main character.

The cultural moment is also ripe for a character such as Lenny/Pius. We can draw comparisons between him and the current pope in their revolutionary actions, or between him and President Trump in the ostentation and unpredictablity that they represent.

Finally, it has been mentioned before but is worth repeating: the show is strongest where it unabashedly cleaves its own logic and style and is weakest where it follows traditional genre.

That said, I have high hopes for the show this Sunday.

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