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The Young Pope, episodes 1-5: Paolo Sorrentino’s HBO mini-series explores the Vatican like it never has been before

HBO has another hit on their hands.

The Young Pope, created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, takes on one of the oldest institutions in the world: The Catholic Church.

The college of cardinals — the mechanism that chooses the Pope — picks a young, handsome Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) to lead the Catholic Church. At 46 years old, he’s the youngest Pope as well as the first American to ever assume the Papacy. Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the Secretary of State of the Vatican, orchestrates Belardo’s election. His strategy is simple: Electing a young, handsome and charming man as Pope would invigorate the Church. However, the cardinals quickly discover that Belardo is going to take the Church in a drastic new direction.

Belardo picks the name Pius XIII — an indication that he will be a reactionary leader. He purges all gay men out of the Clergy, banishes anyone who isn’t entirely devoted to God and he even refuses to pose for an official portrait. Essentially, he’s insulating the Church from the rest of the world. Take his first speech to the public for example: he makes sure that they can only see his silhouette. “What have we forgotten?” Belardo asks. “We have forgotten God!” He goes on to berate the crowd, saying they have strayed from God, and that they will never see his image, because he is much closer to God than they are.

With that being said — Belardo is an enigma. At times, he’s charming and inspiring — he gives advice to a wife of a Swiss guard who’s looking for guidance, and praying for a baby. In these scenes, he’s incredibly disarming. However, he’s an elusive, confusing and eccentric guy with a dark past — his parents abandoned him at a young age. He was raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who becomes his special assistant in the Vatican. She believes that he is a saint, and is a staunch defender of the Pope. It’s pretty much Belardo and Sister Mary vs. the entire Vatican, which is confirmed in the show’s introductory montage. A rendition of “All Along the Watchtower” plays in the background as the young, handsome pope strides confidently through the Vatican. He turns and winks at the camera, ready to go to war for his cause.

Some of the best scenes happen when the Pope and Voiello talk about the affairs of the Vatican. Voiello, who’s more of a politician than a priest, thought that the Pope would listen to everything that he says. When he realized that he couldn’t control him, Voiello tried to undermine him in multiple ways, and all of them ended in failure. The most profound scene involving these two happens when Voiello realizes all of his attempts to undermine the pope have failed. He’s walking beside the Pope who’s standing above him on an elevated surface. Sorrentino’s astounding cinematography is at work here — Voiello is looking up at the Pope, who is standing above, holier than thou. Throughout the show, Torrentino shoots Belardo as a large-than-life figure -- he is always looking down, or sitting above the people he’s talking to.

Sorrentino explores the Papacy in a strange way, and the first five episodes have been a combination of dry humor and weirdness. For example: there’s a kangaroo roaming the grounds of the Vatican, multiple references to Cherry Coke Zero, lots of cigarette smoking inside the Vatican and images of nuns playing organized sports. The score throughout is upbeat and curious, and through the first four episodes, we are unsure of what exactly the show wants to be.

By the fourth and fifth episodes, however, the show turns into a serious meditation about faith and loneliness. We see Belardo struggling with his own faith, even questioning the existence of God. He wanders the grounds of the Vatican, often by himself. His braggadocio turns into solemnity. At the end of the fifth episode, the Pope finally addresses the college of cardinals. In the best scene of the entire show so far, Belardo is carried in like a king. He is wearing the Papal Tiara, which he got back from the Smithsonian, making him look more like an emperor than a Pope. He calls for fanaticism, saying that “fanaticism is love.”

So here’s what we know: Pope Pius XIII is one of the most extreme popes in history. He is uncompromising. He is devious, a master politician. But he is also afraid. He is afraid of his position, and he is afraid of not being loved. The Young Pope is a 10-episode miniseries, and halfway through, we have no idea what’s going to happen — it’ll be entertaining as hell though.

The Young Pope airs 9 p.m. every Monday on HBO. You can get it on HBOnow as well.

Grade: A+

mholt@theeagleonline.com


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