Created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope tells the controversial story of the beginning of Pius XIII's pontificate. Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), aka Pius XIII, is the first American Pope in history. Young and charming, his election might seem the result of a simple and effective media strategy by the College of Cardinals. But, as we know, appearances can be deceptive. Especially in the place and among the people who have chosen the great mystery of God as the guiding light of their existence. That place is the Vatican and those people are the leaders of the Catholic Church. And the most mysterious and contradictory figure of all turns out to be Pius XIII himself. Shrewd and naïve, old-fashioned and very modern, doubtful and resolute, ironic, pedantic, hurt and ruthless, Pius XIII tries to walk the long path of human loneliness to find a God for mankind. And for himself.
Enigmatic characters always make for the most interesting viewing. They're cloaked in mystery. We don't know who they are, where they come from, or where they're going exactly, but we want to watch and see what they do next. Whether you're talking about a slasher horror movie icon, a cannibal psychiatrist, a scrabbly bearded western anti-hero, not knowing these character's complete back stories is part of what makes them so appealing. It makes them unpredictable. So why not make a show about one of the most enigmatic people possible, one whose religion keeps him shrouded in mystery? Italian director Paolo Sorrentino clearly had this in mind as he set down to create and direct The Young Pope starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton. A fictional show about the first American Pope offers up an incredible amount of potential, however, by trying to pull back the veil of mystery surrounding the Papacy, political intrigue, great dialogue, and amazing performances can't keep the show from falling into redundancy.
There is a new Pope. The world knows him only as Pope Pius XIII, the first American Pope and the youngest ever elected. To Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the woman who raised the boy into the man and for Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) his mentor and only father figure, Pope Pius XIII is simply Lenny Belardo (Jude Law). As the pair struggle to steer Lenny in a sensible direction and away from staunchly aggressive and outdated Catholic rhetoric, the Vatican's Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) must balance Pope Pius XIII's personal ambitions against the will and the needs of the church. As the Vatican's Director of Marketing Sofia (Cécile De France) attempts to craft the invisible image of this new Pope who refuses to be photographed or seen outside of Vatican City, Lenny finds himself drawn into the personal life of the wife of one of his guards Esther (Ludivine Sagnier). Is Lenny a true servant of God? Or is he merely a willful and conniving man playing chess with the souls of his followers for his own personal gains?
In truth, I'm only 1/4 Catholic. I've been to a few Masses, weddings, the occasional Christmas service, and occasionally I took communion and made confession. But I wouldn't call myself enough of a Catholic to even be considered lapsed. I'm more of a non-starter Catholic. Someone who understands the rituals, the dogma, but just can't fully commit to the cause. I tend to ask too many "what if" questions for my own good when it comes to my fractured religious upbringing. So to that end, I found the prospect of a show about the big guy of the church, the messenger of God as a fascinating foundation to start with. Aside from the public face of the man, we rarely ever get to know much about the Pope. We don't see him in the evenings when he's trying to calm down after a long day. We don't see him spur his assistant for not having his Cherry Coke Zero ready for him in the morning (as we get to see in this show). There is a staggering amount of potential for this character to be explored.
Unfortunately, the fictional Lenny Belardo of The Young Pope just isn't someone you necessarily want to get to know in your personal - or religious - life. He's arrogant, domineering, conniving, cruel, and kind of a jackass virtually at all times. It's absolutely amazing to watch Jude Law effortlessly execute this character and still find ways to make him somewhat charming and interesting. But charm can only go so far as the show quickly becomes exhaustingly redundant. When he's at his best, he's at his most human. When he tries to be beyond human and show the world that he not only deserves his position it is, in fact, his divine right, he's a boorish braggart who constantly must prove he's the smartest man in the room even if it costs him his most personal relationships.
I hate to make the comparison, but it's the easiest one to come to while watching The Young Pope. It's like watching Game of Thrones but only it's Pope of Thrones as we're exposed to a Joffrey-like man-child that becomes increasingly difficult to like. Just when he's having a nice and honest and human conversation with his confessor that makes you believe this grinch's heart may have grown a couple sizes, he then openly berates his assistant for crying at her own sister's funeral service. As you try to cope with this Pope's manic emotional whiplash, you're left to figure out the side characters like Diane Keaton's Sister Mary, James Cromwell's' spiteful Cardinal Spencer, and Silvio Orlando's strategically-minded Cardinal Voiello.
Thematically speaking, the material surrounding Sister Mary and Cardinal Spencer is terrific stuff. As Lenny was an orphan who never really knew his parents, they're the closest people resembling a mother and a father to the grown Pope. Once they were able to guide the child, but the man is beyond their control and his decisions and actions take a taxing toll on them personally as well as their faith. Sadly we don't get nearly enough time with these two in the same room together for this material to play out as well as it could. As other players enter the arena, we're mostly left with Silvio Orlando's Cardinal Voiello to make a plan, find his conspirators, and take actions that will not only preserve and maybe guide this willful young Pope but maintain the Catholic faith as a whole. Even with this material, it feels like he's little more than a man with a broom and a dustpan cleaning up the mess left in the wake of his superior.
For a show about the Pope and the inner workings of the Papacy, I kind of wish creator Paolo Sorrentino had crafted something a little less Machiavellian with The Young Pope. Because this is clearly a work of fiction, you never get a true sense of what it must be like to be Pope. If you're a screenwriter or have ever taken a stab at writing a screenplay, you've probably come across Blake Snyder's solid guidebook "Save The Cat." In that book, a save the cat moment he concocts is seeing the Pope swimming in his private pool while he's given some important information. It's not that we're seeing a mysterious character like the Pope swimming that makes this idea interesting, it's the fact that he's receiving relevant plot information that would usually be given to him behind a boring desk in an ornate office. Seeing the Pope swim makes the scene more interesting but it doesn't define his character. We have a number of "Pope gone swimming" moments, in The Young Pope. They're interesting circumstances, but not great for character development.
At ten episodes, The Young Pope is a fascinating, often times entertaining to watch, but it does become exhausting after a time. It's not one you can easily binge so I don't suggest you attempt that. It's best to digest this Pope slowly. I didn't love The Young Pope, but I didn't hate it either. I was excited to see this as friends and family recommended it very highly, but I just didn't take to it as I'd hoped I would. I am much more intrigued by the potential of Paolo Sorrentino's followup show rumored to be about our current Pope Francis. That is a person we know something about, but there is still an amount of mystery and interest worth uncovering. Jude Law does what he does best and delivers 10 hours of terrific performances, but it wasn't enough to make The Young Pope a fully enjoyable experience for me.
Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
The Young Pope arrives on Blu-ray courtesy of HBO Home Entertainment as a three-disc Blu-ray + Digital HD set. Pressed onto three Region A BD-50 Discs, the discs are housed in an eco-friendly three-disc Blu-ray case with identical slipcover artwork. The discs load directly to a static image main menu featuring traditional navigation options.
While I may not be a devout fan of the show, I've gotta admit that The Young Pope enjoys a stellar 1.78:1 1080p transfer. As this series couldn't actually be shot in the Vatican, the production team worked to recreate the scenery either through meticulous physical reconstructions or through digital trickery, and often times I'm pleased to say that it is very difficult to spot where the physical prop starts and the CGI takes over. The only giveaway moments are during any crowd sequence where people are occupying St. Peter's Square. Detail levels in the production design work, facial features, and especially the intricate costuming are flawless. Colors are bright, primary-rich while keeping flesh tones even and healthy. Black levels are deep and inky allowing for a terrific sense of depth and dimension to the image. Black levels also lend themselves to some pretty striking imagery throughout. Without any video defects of note, this is another fantastic transfer from HBO.
The Young Pope enjoys an atmospherically robust 5.1 DTS-HD MA audio mix. Dialogue is clean and crisp and easy to hear throughout keeping mostly to the front/center channels with a bit of side activity. The moody scoring coupled with terrific atmospherics and ambient sounds keep the surround channels working to create a notable sense of space and dimension. This is especially true when Lenny takes any meetings in the large open space rooms where there is a nice subtle sense of echo. Crowd scenes also enjoy that sense of space and enormity of Vatican City. Sound effects are densely layered enough that in the quiet moments you can enjoy hearing the swish of the Cardinal's robes on the marble floor or the very subtle jingle of their rosaries. My only mild quibble with this audio mix has to do with levels. Some conversations I had no problem hearing, but in the next scene it could feel too quite and I did have to adjust my volume a time or two just so I didn't miss any relevant piece of dialogue. Otherwise, this is a fine audio mix that gets the job done.
For an intricately produced, scripted, performed, and directed show, The Young Pope, unfortunately, scrounges up a bare-bones package of EPK bonus features with the usual talking heads snippets from cast and crew. They're all so brief they only cover bits and pieces of specific episodes without ever going into much depth. Bonus features are spread out over all three discs. Most of the supplements are in Italian with English subtitles.
Inside the Episodes 1 and 2 (HD 3:20)
Inside the Episodes 3 and 4 (HD 3:26)
Inside the Episodes 5 and 6 (HD 2:41)
Inside the Episodes 7 and 8 (HD 2:37)
Inside the Episodes 9 and 10 (HD 2:18)
An Invitation to the Set (HD 3:07) It's short, but we do get to enjoy some genuine behind the scenes content here. Wish it could have been longer.
The Making of The Young Pope (HD 11:26) If this could have been about 50 minutes longer we would have something. As it is, it's brief but does provide some interesting info about the production.
For a show about something as fascinating as the Papacy coupled with the intriguing prospect of the lead character being the first American and youngest Pope, The Young Pope left me wanting more than the sum of what I got - even with ten hours of content. The story is intriguing, the characters rich, the writing and performances are dynamic, but they never quite gel into a cohesive whole. Is it satire? Is it melodrama? Is it too much of both for its own good? I may not have been completely carried away by it, but I wouldn't dissuade anyone from watching it. It's absolutely worth seeing for the great performances, exceptional dialogue, and amazing production values. HBO has released a solid Blu-ray of The Young Pope featuring a beautiful A/V presentation. The pale bonus features package is really the only detriment to this set. At the end of the day, I'll say it's worth a look. Fans of the show should absolutely consider a purchase.