Handsomer than Jesus himself, as crisply dressed in his virgin-white vestments as James Bond stalking Savile Row, Pope Pius XIII, né Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), is also, as it happens, a card. In The Young Pope, from Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Youth), the first American pontiff’s devilish sense of humor—delivered in biting deadpan, or perhaps with a snort—lands upon his punctilious rival, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the sexual proclivities of priests, even the existence of a higher power: “I’m saying that I don’t believe in God, Tommaso,” he declares in the course of confession, before assuring his horrified interlocutor that his words are jests. If it’s far from clear that Lenny is, in fact, cracking wise, this is only fitting; Sorrentino’s embarrassingly luxe, impossibly smug, sublimely heretical miniseries is an electric nest of crossed wires, constantly confusing the viewer’s sense of where the serious ends and the satirical begins. His sly, often surprising preoccupation is mocking the ostentation of Vatican manners, at which he succeeds, in part, because he appreciates pomp and circumstance, too.
The Young Pope, then, is a comedy, and nearly a great one: As Il Papa proclaims in the series’ third episode, which begins, quite literally, with a wink, “My jokes contain the truth.”
Sorrentino’s most significant advantage, on this front, may be misdirection. Though advertised as a portrait of palace intrigue, The Young Pope is so tonally slippery as to defy categorization; alongside foreboding thunderclaps in St. Peter’s Square, it finds Diane Keaton, as Lenny’s longtime caretaker and confidante, Sister Mary, wearing a white tee emblazoned with the words, “I’M A VIRGIN, BUT THIS IS AN OLD SHIRT.” The series telegraphs its glancing interest in political machinations from the start, declining to depict the mystery of the papal conclave, its secrets and smoke signals, in favor of the new pope’s first day as the leader of the Catholic Church. In fact, The Young Pope falters when the deadpan segues into dramatic contrivance—the maudlin flashback in which Lenny, orphaned after his parents disappear in Venice, meets Sister Mary, or the moments in which he fears himself abandoned, forsaken, unloved. When Sorrentino untangles the wires, the series no longer sparks.
Fortunately, as Lenny clashes with Voiello, Mary, his jealous mentor, Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell), and the modernization of the papacy itself, The Young Pope prefers, in the main, to approach its subject—Vatican tradition—with a cunning mixture of awe and scorn. Sorrentino’s images are sumptuous enough to make Francis blush, with brightly hued, symmetrical compositions reminiscent of Renaissance art; in his hands, an ice-cold chalice of orange juice becomes a near-sinful temptation. But the atmosphere he conjures is more impish than imposing: That aforementioned wink, which Lenny directs at the camera, comes as he swaggers past devotional paintings, the title credits singed on the wall’s dark damask in a strip joint’s neon blue.
To this end, The Young Pope is closer kin to Iannucci’s In the Loop, or Ionesco’s existential absurd, than to House of Cards—a series in which, despite its penchant for operatic camp, preening power is never laughable. At every turn, Sorrentino’s knowing leer casts the respect demanded by church leaders as risible, to the point that Lenny’s own, more unnerving excesses (refusing to be seen by the public, drawing up impenetrable pronouncements) suggest the logical extension of precedent, rather than a definitive rupture with it. Sorrentino’s blasphemous glee, more than the conflict among Vatican factions, is the series’ primary motor: In one wickedly funny montage, set to a soaring rendition of “Ave Maria,” cardinals tap away at tablets and alternate between cigarettes and oxygen tanks, struggle into shoes and receive shots to their asses, reduced to frail, worldly figures before our eyes.
Orlando’s Voiello, to wit, is both a reservoir of comic relief, sporting a ludicrous mole and watching archival footage of Maradona on YouTube, and the catalyst in the series’ central experiment, which is to acknowledge the allure of the church’s obscurantism while emptying it of divine purpose. (At one point, Voiello confronts a fellow cardinal and papal ally about his alcoholism while clutching a stuffed deer.) Buoyed by Lele Marchitelli’s remarkable music, an arresting, unexpected blend of cheeky flutes and frantic strings, strumming guitars and somber pianos, Orlando and Law’s two-step creates its own suspense, a battle of wills that is also a struggle between opposing styles—the formal and the frank, the subtle and the brash.
With vigor, if not always with precision, The Young Pope targets the institutions of the Catholic Church, and the venal, very human motives that fuel its workings, in order to separate the sacred from the profane. As Pius XIII himself admits, ascending to St. Peter’s seat involves much more of the latter: “Lenny, you have illumined yourself,” he says, in a moment of self-congratulation. “Fuck!”
The Young Pope premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.