'The Young Pope': Venice Review

Sharply drawn characters and an enjoyably irreverent fantasy keep you guessing.

Jude Law is a dangerously iconoclastic Pontiff and Diane Keaton his chief advisor in Paolo Sorrentino’s Vatican-set satire made for Sky, HBO and Canal+.

Who knows where Paolo Sorrentino’s amusing, unpredictable and irreverent Vatican fantasy, The Young Pope, will lead over the course of its 10 episodes? From the look of the first two hours screened in Venice, this is a potential hit for Sky, HBO and Canal+, combining the Italian director's sardonic, Fellini-inspired gift for the bizarre with the world’s ever-growing hunger to peep behind the screens at St. Peter's — a match made in heaven. The miniseries has already sold widely and the door is open to a second season. 

Sorrentino's taste for the grotesque at times gets out of hand, but generally serves him well in this comic approach to the hidebound traditions of the miniscule Papal state. It's a far cry from the gentle, respectful humor of Nanni Moretti's We Have a Pope, where Michel Piccoli played a newly-elected Holy Father so overcome with self-doubt he refuses to take office. The Young Pope is closer to the acid spirit of Il Divo, Sorrentino's merciless portrait of the Italian politician with nine lives, Giulio Andreotti, than to his contemplative recent films like Youth and 2014 Oscar winner The Great Beauty.

Shot in mixed English and Italian, the miniseries is galvanized by a commandingly arch Jude Law as Lenny Belardo, who has just been elected Pope Pius XIII. Not only is he the first American pope, he's only 47 years old, as well as arrogant, whimsical and hilariously destructive. How he ever got elected will no doubt be revealed in later episodes, but suffice it to say he comes off as a borderline anti-Christ not only in his power-mad dreams, but in all his dealings with the cardinals and the Curia.

Devilishly handsome and of uncertain intent, he refuses to let the canny head of Vatican marketing (Cecile de France) use his image or even show his face to the public, all to increase the air of mystery and power surrounding him. In his first homily to the overflowing crowds in St. Peter's, which he insists on holding at night, the clear sky is streaked by sinister lightning and the faithful are drenched in a sudden downpour. But that's nothing compared to the dire future he lays before their eyes as Catholics who need to think only of God, 24 hours a day. Could he be about to turn the Church into an extremist, fundamentalist organization? One thing is sure: His message has nothing in common with the love and brotherhood preached by the current Pope Francis.

Other alarming things: He drinks American filter coffee and breakfasts on Cherry Coke Zero. Oh, and he also wants to check out all the gifts sent to him, like an appalling kangaroo he has released in the Vatican gardens.

His main antagonist, one who is bound to give him a run for his money, is the wart-faced Cardinal Voiello (played by Moretti’s comic muse Silvio Orlando), the Secretary of State. Though he's the most powerful man in the Vatican, you can tell he's a good soul by the fact he loves the Naples soccer team and secretly takes care of a boy in a wheelchair. He also has sexual fantasies over the Venus of Willendorf. Pitting his human warmth against Lenny's icy control freak, it's clear who is likely to emerge the ultimate winner.  

But the story is just warming up, and one has the feeling the Pontiff is so unpredictable he could swing either way, to God or Mammon. In a scene high up on the dome of St. Peter's, he tempts his humble confessor with immense power if he'll break the secret of the confessional and tell him all the cardinals' sins, at the same time informing him that he personally doesn't believe in God. The poor priest is so shocked he has to backtrack. Tipping into the outrageous, this scene may prove to be the limit for some devout Catholics, but one has to wait and see if some redemption is in store for Lenny.  

In answer to the powerful cardinals who plan to run the show for him behind the scenes, he calls in as his chief counselor Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who ran the orphanage where he grew up. Keaton gets a laugh just for wearing a nun's habit and makes a delightful addition to the wacky team. But even their Shakespearean co-rule is short-lived. When Sister Mary admits to admiring the speech about love Voiello has written for him, he makes her stop calling him Lenny and forces her to use His Holiness as her form of address.

Summoning Cardinal Spencer, his mentor who helped him reach the papacy (played as a tough old bird by James Cromwell), Lenny offers to kick out the head of the Congregation of the Faith on grounds of homosexuality (!) and let Spencer replace him. The cardinal all but spits in his face.

Spanish actor Javier Camara dons the robes of the saintly Cardinal Gutierrez, whose trim beard and sober, classic features are illuminated like a painting whenever he appears. He seems to the be only positive influence on Lenny, a figure he can't dismiss contemptuously.

Law makes the new Pontiff a memorable megalomaniac, but who can call it delusions of grandeur when he's the head of a billion Catholics around the world? Enigmatic and eerily composed in his impeccable white robes and wide-brimmed hat, he recalls Terence Stamp (who incidentally played a pope in the film Vatican Conspiracy) with a hint of Anita Ekberg in her Vatican visit in La Dolce Vita. Only here Sorrentino's fantasy has run even wilder than Fellini's, and verges on the incomprehensible when he tries to psyche out Lenny's dark mind. The editing could be clearer in certain parts.

Working with top Italian technicians, Sorrentino presents a majestic and slightly creepy Vatican City, whose marbled halls and stunning statues and architecture acquire a sense of timeless beauty in Luca Bigazzi's lighting and Ludovica Ferrario's production design.

Venue: Venice Film Festival (Out of Competition)
Production companies: Sky, HBO, Canal+, Wildside, in association with Haut et Court TV, MediaPro
Cast: Jude Law, Diane Keaton, Silvio Orlando, Javier Camara, Scott Shepherd, Cecile de France, Ludivine Sagnier, Toni Bertorelli, James Cromwell
Director-screenwriter: Paolo Sorrentino
Executive producers: Lorenzo Mieli, Mario Gianani, John Lyons, Caroline Benjo, Carole Scotta, Simon Arnal, Jaume Roures, Javier Mendez, Nils Hartmann, Roberto Amoroso, Sonia Rovai  

Director of photography: Luca Bigazzi
Production designer: Ludovica Ferrario
Costume designers: Carlo Poggioli, Luca Canfora
Music: Lele Marchitelli
Editor: Cristiano Travaglioli
Sales: FremantleMedia Intl. 

Not rated, 2 x 56 minutes

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