“The Young Pope” makes it a point to leave you reeling. It’s obnoxious and inflammatory, but miraculously avoids being unseemly. For a show that finds pleasure in constantly poking and prodding its viewers, its shelf life manages to surprise. Whether Lenny Belardo (Jude Law, “Spy”) is buried deep in his childhood melodrama, or viciously — and laudably — politicking his way around Vatican City, the mask he dons as Pope Pius XIII never fails to confound, confuse, excite and terrorize — oftentimes all at once.
In “The Young Pope,” creator, writer and director Paolo Sorrentino (“Youth”) crafts a thematic paradox. He manages to desecrate the tenets and traditions of the Catholic Church without impunity, while earnestly glorifying its propriety and affection in the same breath. His thematic intentions with regards to the Church remain largely unclear, even as the dust settles around the finale — but ruminating over that is an exercise in futility. While HBO can bill the show as pertaining to the Catholic Church all they want, Sorrentino makes it no mystery that the Church is but a carefully curated backdrop for a story far larger than the already portly institution. Sorrentino’s stories are grand, and his visions behoove and arrest — but most importantly, they’re befitting for the kind of narratives he so desperately seeks to operate on.
Pope Pius XIII introduces himself to us as a hawk who lurches from the shadows. He is a false promise sold by the Church to itself and, ultimately, a metaphor for the inevitable impropriety and shortsightedness that centuries of killing time ushers in. His emotions and actions often recall to life the demeanor of Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Michael Corleone (Al Pacino, “Misconduct”) — a kind of demeanor that led Corleone to usurp his father and siblings, a kind of demeanor that reflects a natural cunning and penchant for grandeur (the Pope unfolding to his own “family” in much of the same manner). He reviles homosexuality, demonizes abortion and ham-handedly makes enemies and skeptics out of would-be peers — all while the Church was expecting an earnest ambassador for their intended institutional liberalization. The world around him erupts in protest, and Sorrentino advantageously channels that fervor into the kind of striking cinematography that nurtures the program’s absurdity — an image of FEMEN protesters bloodily painted with the word “bastard” littered around the Papal Palace’s garden isn’t a scene to forget.
But Sorrentino carefully guides the program’s narrative in such a way as to highlight the nuances of time and progress. The Pope comes to us as a complex man, in strong pursuit of a gripping and enigmatic legacy, and for a sense of long-craved familial affirmation. He first goes about fulfilling his desires in ways that stun and polarize his colleagues. Attempts to stain the Pope in scandal drip from the upper rungs of the Church, and St. Peter’s Square becomes a jarringly empty enclave. Drunk on power, Pius — in the name of his ego — becomes unknowingly hell-bent on becoming the Church’s undoing. But the Pope’s self-orchestrated chaos transforms itself into a pertinent meditation, most evident in the finale.
Pius begins the program in the shadow of his more fundamental predecessors as a means to strike fear into the hearts of those around him, but those intentions slowly become more telling of a wounded man on a lifelong search for personal equilibrium. As much as he casts his fists in violent deference, Pius is also man who suffers. He shields his face from public view to cloud himself in manufactured enigma, but one can’t help but ask if his unabashed, impulsive authority is just one grand coping mechanism for a man far more emotionally wrought than he’s proud to admit. His prodigious self-awareness finally becomes of use as he reconciles with the wounds of abandonment that have marred him for so long — and with that reconciliation comes a leader and savior far more fit for the papal regalia than anyone could have expected.
The program relishes its last minutes, with the Pope finally revealing himself to a massive crowd in Venice’s St. Mark’s Square. After months of chastising and berating the public from afar, Pius delivers a sobering address that contradicts his otherwise taut predilection for authority and mystery. Drawing on the stories of the canonized (but, unfortunately, fictitious) Juana Fernandez — a Guatemalan teenager touted for her saintly love and affection — Pius addresses the crowd on the oft-misunderstood simplicity of devotion. He implores the crowd to smile. In rare form, he smiles. And he cries. An address meant to be a prescient reminder for believers and nonbelievers alike becomes symbolic of a personal vindication that may have never been in the cards for Pius. The Pope collapses after a final earnest smile. Papal infallibility mightily held in one hand, personal tumult in the other, Pope Pius XIII’s frequent shifts between ruler and child shows that even in the glory of a manicured image and regimented rule, the human soul wounds, nurtures and persists.
The season one finale of “The Young Pope” premieres Monday, Feb. 13.