Why ‘The Young Pope’ is Paolo Sorrentino’s most compelling work yet

In a key scene in The Young Pope, Jude Law’s fictional Pope Pius XIII a.k.a Lenny Belardo, asks a marketing executive to name a list of artists from various fields – art, music, literature and cinema – that she thinks are important. When she answers his “most important director” question with “Spielberg”, he corrects her with an immediate “Kubrick”. He then proceeds to tell her about the one quality that makes all these people important and sets them apart from the rest: their lack of interest in seeking publicity.

This is how Lenny wants to be as well – someone who’d rather remain in the shadows and influence people than bask in the limelight. One thing that sets Lenny apart from the real-life popes is the fact that he is the first American in history to be put in charge of the biggest and most powerful church in the world. He is the central character in this strange, irreverent and original 10-part miniseries created by Academy Award-winning Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth). It is Sorrentino’s most compelling, most accessible and most accomplished work yet.

I’ve never seen such a radical pope before. Sorrentino gives a little hint of how his mind works through the opening of the first episode itself. But we can’t fully figure him out. If you aren’t a fan of Jude Law yet, I guarantee you’ll turn into one once you see what he has done here. His thoroughly electrifying performance has a bit of Al Pacino’s Michael Corleone here and a bit of Malcolm McDowell’s Alex DeLarge there. The beauty of the script, written by Sorrentino himself, lies in the fact that our curiosity about his character is matched by that of the public who is left disappointed by an odd sermon he gives one night.

Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII
Jude Law as Pope Pius XIII

Law is supported by a bevy of equally talented cast: Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, Lenny’s former caretaker and current advisor; James Crowell as Spencer, his suicidal mentor who is furious at him for snatching the papacy away from him; Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello, the dubious Secretary of State who may or may not be who we think he is. The series is to Sorrentino what The Godfather was to Mario Puzo. Keaton’s character is like Robert Duvall’s Tom Hagen in The Godfather. In Lenny, Sorrentino has presented us a character so enigmatic that he will be, I imagine, discussed and studied by not just cinephiles but also psychologists.

Lenny is not particularly a charismatic character but there is something about him that draws us closer to him. He is smart, ambitious, ruthless, arrogant and above all, a bit of a narcissist. This is the most complex and compelling character study I’ve seen on TV since 2013’s Hannibal. Sorrentino once again displays his flair for writing dark humor, surrealistic dream sequences, innovative camera work (lovingly capturing the opulent interiors and lush exteriors of the Catholic Church) and using a distinctive background score. I have a feeling that Martin Scorsese is going to love this series as the subject is something that is right up his alley. I would even go so far as to say that The Young Pope is Sorrentino’s masterpiece.

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