Echoes of the world's new dark ages in HBO's 'The Young Pope,' starring Jude Law

Having already been a Twitter meme (and aired in its entirety overseas), "The Young Pope" arrives in all its raiment and finery Sunday on HBO. Created, directed and mostly written by Paolo Sorrentino, whose 2013 film "The Great Beauty" gobbled up awards here and elsewhere, the 10-episode series is not, like "Young Sherlock Holmes" or "Young Guns," the story of characters in their formative years. And though the title suggests its main character will bring a breath of groovy fresh air to musty marble halls, that is exactly what does not happen.

Jude Law plays the Pope Pius XIII, born Lenny Belardo, formerly the Archbishop of New York. We meet him in a dream, promising the massed faithful what the title promises: elected to be a "synthesis" between a progressive candidate and a conservative candidate who planned to rule through him together. He proves to be not only impossible to rule, but reactionary.

He is profound and arbitrary; alternately charming and rude, frightening and approachable; now sure, now unsure of himself but convinced of his mission — a potentially monstrous ego who also seeks to erase his identity.

A believer in the studied invisibility of Banksy, Kubrick, Salinger and Daft Punk, he wants to make the church "as unreachable as a rock star": "We're in but only to God,” he will get around to telling his cardinals. “Evangelization, we've already done it. Ecumenicalism, been there, done that. Tolerance — doesn't live here anymore. … We need to go back to being prohibitive, inaccessible and mysterious.”

Abandoned by his parents, glimpsed in dreams and flashbacks, he was taken under the wing of Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), whom he brings to the Vatican as an advisor. She calls him a saint, and "by saint," she says. "I don't mean a good man. I mean, he's literally a saint." (Lenny demurs.)

Keaton is marvelous here, a down-to-earth believer, shooting baskets in the Vatican park, sleeping in a T-shirt that bears the legend, "I'm a virgin, but this is an old shirt." Whenever she disappears from the story line, you want her back. But perhaps the key performance here is that of Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Angelo Voiello, the Vatican secretary of state, a politician who sees the church as a necessarily worldly institution, responsible to its members, setting him against his new boss. And Law easily hits a wide range of notes while keeping his character coherent.

A sumptuous affair, the series was not actually filmed in the Vatican, where most of the five episodes available for review take place, but the impersonation is good enough that one wonders, "Did they let them film that in the Vatican?" Subsequent episodes are said to range further afield, but the central action happens mostly in and around Vatican City — “a city state full of lost souls, who've never really lived," says Sister Mary. In its chapels, offices, apartments and parks, “rumors fly so quickly that sometimes they arrive even before the event has taken place," and every player has his spies. (Much is glimpsed through windows; there is lip-reading.)

With elements real and surreal — things get dreamlike at times, and not always within dreams — the production feels appealingly foreign, and particularly Italian, with formal arrangements of characters and color that recall Fellini and Antonioni. There are nuns playing volleyball, a kangaroo running wild in the garden. As pure picture-making, it is never less than lovely.

Although much of its business is with God, or with people who have business with God, it is not impossible to see reflections of current earthly events in this glass. That an electoral body can wind up electing someone bad for the body will strike some viewers as a familiar truth, as when Lenny's former mentor (James Cromwell) describes him as "a vindictive little boy." And one can see in Lenny's drive forward into the medieval past echoes of the world's new dark ages.

It's hard to know from half a season where Sorrentino is taking Lenny, or where Lenny is taking Sorrentino — in many ways he is the familiar confused picture of a television antihero, attractive and awful, protagonist as antagonist — but that's not a bad thing. Indeed, the series' strength is that it is difficult to pin down; it zigs when you expect it to zag. Only when the show flirts with psychology, suggesting present actions have roots in past traumas,  does it feel diminished. Mystery matters in television as much as in the church. Solutions are for suckers.

‘The Young Pope’

Where: HBO

When: 9 p.m. Sunday and Monday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Copyright © 2017, Los Angeles Times

Jude Law Diane Keaton

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