Viewed in its 10-hour entirety, THE YOUNG POPE encompassed much of the good and bad of Auteur TV. HBO, by all appearances, wrote a (very large) check to the arthouse filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino as creator, director and co-writer of the series, and then left him alone to make his art. He emerged with a piece that was striking from beginning to end, not just in its audacious take on Papal politics and the nature of religious faith, but even more so for its exquisite craft. The lighting and composition of every shot, the edits, the musical cues, even the marvelous opening credit sequence–all were painstakingly designed and tailored not to the rules of conventional narrative, but to a sustained contemplation of theme and form.
As storytelling, though, it was far less satisfying: terribly overlong, and often indulgently superficial and repetitive. Our protagonist Pope Pius XIII/Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) felt much of the time like an arbitrary collection of character tics. He was arrogant, he was yearning, he was reflexively cruel and on a quest for human contact and then back again. Although Sorrentino wanted to use this Pope as a vehicle for examining the very conception of God and the purpose of religion, his Pope was mostly reduced to periodic Rosebud-y reminders that he had been abandoned by his hippy parents at an abbey decades earlier, and that he had once had a wisp of a beachside romance as a teen. Once or twice every episode or two, Sorrentino would remember that Diane Keaton was in the cast (as Sister Mary, Lenny’s surrogate mother figure), or give a scene to James Cromwell (as Lenny’s one-time mentor). The Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) was built up as the Pope’s greatest antagonist, a fascinating mix of kindliness and ruthless strategy, but then Sorrentino seemed to lose interest in him other than as an elderly man with a crush on Sister Mary and an odd friendship with a disabled young man. The Pope’s own intolerant positions on subjects like homosexuality and abortion, mixed with his literal saintliness (he healed the sick, made the barren pregnant, and successfully called on God to assassinate a corrupt nun with bad breath) felt like Sorrentino was trying too hard to stir Pius up as a figure of controversy.
Those hoping for the pieces to come together in tonight’s finale (co-written with Umberto Contarello) would be disappointed. The storyline of the New York Archbishop (Guy Boyd) whose decades of child molestation were finally proven by Cardinal Gutierrez (Javier Camara), which dominated the penultimate hour, fizzled out with one of Lenny’s acts of pettiness, making the palsied criminal pick the spot on the globe to which he’d be sent, which thanks to his twitching fingers put him in remote Alaska, Lenny’s favorite banishment spot. Sister Mary was sent away to Africa, to take over for the divinely murdered nun, prompting a look of sadness from poor Voiello. Gutierrez was appointed Papal Secretary, even though Lenny knew he was a (non-practicing) homosexual, which was supposed to be a sign of the Pope moderating his positions, although it didn’t do much for all the other gay priests he was throwing out of the priesthood.
It all culminated in the Pope finally agreeing to present a daylight mass in public (prompted, after all those episodes of his stubborn refusal, by one of the priests telling him it would make people feel better). He delivered an enigmatic (naturally) address about God’s refusal to answer any of man’s questions about life, but delighted the crowd by ending it with “God smiles.” He may or may not have seen a glimpse of his birth parents in the throng, which seemed to give him the spiritual epiphany he’d been looking for, and then he–apparently–died. (That supposition is based on the combination of his keeling over, the following God’s-eye view that pulled back from the Venice square to outer space, and the seeming finality of the on-screen title “The End.”) Ultimately it all felt like an ornate frame for a minimalist picture, and despite the joys of Sorrentino’s filmmaking, and the very fine acting throughout, especially by the endlessly charismatic Law and the previously little-known Orlando, The Young Pope was more beautiful than revelatory.
Resurrection, of course, would be a very Catholic way for The Young Pope to proceed, and despite the seeming period at the end of the story, not to mention the weak ratings, the series may have stirred enough chatter, and be enough of an awards-season magnet, that Pope Pius XIII could rise from his affliction. It might be better, though, for all concerned to treat the project as an experiment and move on. A second season would likely be even less miraculous, and Sorrentino has other visions to develop. Perhaps his next one would benefit from aiming a bit lower than the heavens.