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The Young Pope (2016)

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Habemus Papam

A “written & directed by Paolo Sorrentino” title card holds magical properties for yours truly. The man has “the divine disposition to play” he wrote into his fictional Pope’s fictional address. This disposition leads him to be extremely funny when he’s serious and extremely serious when he’s funny: you’re never quite sure what to think about a scene when it starts, which is good. What is an absolute delight is that most probably, it will end in a mind-boggling, if understated way. The man is a great film maker and he’s in complete control of his material. In this series, his material is the Vatican, placed in the clutch of newly elected Pope Pius XIII, of whom no one knows much about after a discreet career under the aegis of formidable cardinal Spencer, his mentor (James Cromwell, always a good sign).

To say that The Young Pope is extraordinarily clever would qualify both the series and its hero. Had Jude Law ever been that good since Gattaca? He wears the white cassock like a natural and seems to enjoy himself thoroughly, pacing the huge halls of his Cinecitta Vatican or insisting on starting is papacy with a Cherry Coke Zero. This Pope is a living enigma even for the one who manipulated the Curia to have him elected, puppet master cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando, as mellifluous as venomous). There is no mistake to be made though: under his photogenic appearance, the young Pope is resolved to shake thinks up in the Catholic church, and the malevolent glee he displays at not following any of the advice he receives is infectious, but highly disquieting.

The Pope has a mother, a nun. Rest your beating hearts, he was an orphan placed in a home managed by her. “Never call me Mom, call me Sister Mary”, she says in a flashback. His first significant act as Pope is to heliport Sister Mary to the Vatican, his second is to made her his sole trusted assistant. So, regally arrives Diane Keaton, doing the responsability prep talk and locking horns with the puppet master as soon as they are in front of each other. One never had sympathy for the actress, but her aged, toothy face is perfect for the part.

Opening like any other series would do with the Pope’s first homely on St Peter’s square in front of thousands of faithful and beyond them the world, which goes from grandiose to off kilter to downright embarassing and is revealed as an extended dream sequence, The Young Pope is enthralling from its first frame. You can almost hear the great craftsman laughing aloud as he places his crimson pawns in a way Fellini would have approved. This Pope, see, is done with God. Does he even believe in Him? Or is it, on the contrary, God’s wrath incarnate? That might sounds like heady stuff. But if Sorrentino knows something from Il Divo, it’s that with great power come great opportunities for comedy.

From cardinals texting during confession to the Pope’s aversion to tourists “just passing through”, not forgetting impure thoughts in front of a Neolithic statue, this first episode is replete with giggles. Dialogues are first rate: “Are you sleeping, Holy Father?”, a question answered by an arch “No, I’m praying. For you.” being a mere example. The Pope doesn’t appreciate friendly relationships and is determined to remain in the practicality of formal ones. Our Holy Father is a monster, God bless him! Viewing essential.

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