The Young Pope

HBO

Jan 13, 2017 Issue # 59 - 15th Anniversary
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What would it be like if a godless megalomaniac somehow managed to ascend to the top of the Catholic Church? HBO has a limited 10-episode series called The Young Pope that explores this premise and studies the man at the center of the ensuing religious storm. Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), who assumes the title Pope Pius XIII, is a relatively young man elected under ambiguous circumstances who shocks his elders by promptly turning his back on their counsel. He suffers a crisis of faith that results in a wildly unconventional view of the Church's purpose. Does the Church exist to provide a shining, welcoming path to salvation with a benevolent God? Or should it standby while humanity flounders in a darkness where fear and solitude may eventually force them into submission to an indifferent God? Lenny believes it's the latter, for that's how he found God during his childhood in an orphanage.

Who is this new pope, saddled with solitude and feelings of abandonment? Law hits just the right notes of solemnity, severity, ruthlessness, and piousness to give expression to Pope Lenny, and shores up his weaknesses and inadequacies with ironclad conviction. Behind the scenes, he's a cold, humorless man who often treats his subordinates with pettiness, disdain, and callousness. He's a pope who quotes philosophers often, saints sometimes, and Scripture never.

Although it may be fun to watch him cut down the corrupt members of a bloated Vatican bureaucracy, his pointless cruelty toward the few well-intentioned within the organization is not. Anti-religious viewers may initially be delighted as Lenny stomps on the ossified traditions of the Church, but it soon becomes clear that his values are anything but progressive. His lack of compassion and courtesy are jarring, and his extreme homophobia is positively medieval. In the end, it's Law's incredible performance-certainly one of his best-that makes Lenny compelling, mysterious, and complex. We can't help but fall under his charismatic spell and stick with him through trying moments.

Perhaps the show's writer and director Paolo Sorrentino anticipated it, but The Young Pope is sure to become an allegory for another world leader who will soon assume office, and whose competency is seriously being questioned by many. Most pertinently, the show asks the uncomfortable question: How much deference does a man deserve because of his office, when he himself appears to be a scoundrel?

Fundamentally, The Young Pope is a love story-between man and God, a boy and his parents, or a young man and his summer crush. All are present here, and the story must be birthed in pain and hardship, by order of the show's protagonist. At one point, Pope Lenny gives a speech where "openness, ecumenicalism, and tolerance" are all tossed out of the church. "Prohibited, inaccessible, and mysterious" will take their place instead. This, Pope Pius XIII asserts, will make Catholicism desirable again. "That's the only way great love stories are born," he concludes with a devilish grin. (www.hbo.com/the-young-pope)

Author rating: 8.5/10

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