Pope fiction

the young pope
Review by TIM LAM


In the 2000-year history of the Roman Catholic Church, there has never been a Pope quite like Pius XIII, the fictional pontiff played by Jude Law in the new HBO series The Young Pope.

Born Lenny Belardo, Pius XIII is the first American Pope and the youngest cardinal to inherit the papacy at just 47 years of age. The little-known Pontiff was supposed to be a meek and malleable puppet but he quickly proves himself to be an uncompromising and ruthless operator and a formidable adversary to the cardinals who seek to undermine him.

The Holy Father depicted in this 10-part television series is a chain-smoking narcissist with a fondness for Cherry Coke Zero.

He demonstrates flippant disregard for diplomacy and protocols and an uncanny talent for humiliating his enemies.

This reclusive Pope, who refuses to be photographed and delivers his first public address from St Peter’s Square in silhouette, is almost the antithesis of the media-savvy Pope Francis. His ultra conservative theology is a throwback to medieval times and his exclusionary beliefs threaten to alienate the Vatican from its one billion Catholic constituents.

But perhaps the most shocking revelation is that this Pope may not actually believe in God. Abandoned by his parents at a young age, Pius struggles to understand how a benevolent and loving God could take away his mother and father.

Jude Law gives a captivating performance as the enigmatic Pius. He is a man of contradictions – a young Pope with old ideas, a miracle worker who doubts God’s existence.

Diane Keaton plays his childhood mentor Sister Mary, while veteran Italian actor Silvio Orlando is superb as the scheming Cardinal Angelo Voiello.

Voiello is the consummate politician – a master manipulator who works in the shadows to save his beloved Church, a contrast to the outspoken and somewhat socially inept Pius.

Directed by Academy Award-winning director Paolo Sorrentino, The Young Pope is packed with the sweeping cinematography and slick production values you come to expect from HBO. Sorrentino’s surreal filmmaking style is evident in The Young Pope, which occasionally ventures into the realm of the bizarre with its pseudo-realistic imagery and unexplained mysteries.

Pope Pius’ motivations are often ambiguous and he seems to revel in keeping the cardinals, and the audience, guessing. Is he a visionary or a madman? Is he a reluctant antihero or a sociopathic monster who will destroy the Church?

At times, Pius treats his role as the spiritual shepherd of the Catholic Church almost with disdain as he seeks to ‘revolutionise’ the Church by ostracising all who do not share in his radical vision. But we also get glimpses of his humanity through his encounter with an infertile young woman and flashbacks to his more idyllic childhood.

The Young Pope has been described as House of Cards meets the Vatican. There is certainly plenty of political intrigue as Voiello and his fellow cardinals plot against the newly appointed Pontiff. But at its core, The Young Pope is not about politics. It is about universal human experiences of loneliness, grief, redemption and the search for God amidst unexplainable suffering. What starts out as a political drama/black comedy in the first few episodes evolves into a contemplative meditation on the nature of faith and the relevance of God in a broken world.

At first glance, The Young Pope may seem like a sacrilegious piece of art designed to shock and scandalise audiences. But far from being anti-Christian, it is a deeply spiritual experience that captures how beautiful and challenging it is to believe in a God who does not always answer our prayers in the way we expect.

The Young Pope is now showing on SBS On Demand.


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