Hey, America, if you think Donald Trump is conservative, wait’ll you get a load of “The Young Pope.”
HBO’s 10-part series opens Jan. 15 in the U.S., and I have watched the entire series, both from outside on Sky and within as a pseudo actor. If you followed three previous blogs, I was an extra in the film. I play an American cardinal, someone in demand as history’s first American pope takes up residence. If you’re a fan of me, don’t get excited. My entire contribution to the series is a distant shot of the side of my face off in the distance in Episode 5. No one will recognize me. I barely did. Too bad. It’s an important scene. It’s when the young pope, played by Jude Law, addresses our College of Cardinals for the first time. But in all six other scenes I filmed, I was left, with the leftover piazza bianca, on the cutting room floor.
However, if you’re a fan of Jude Law and Diane Keaton, if you’re a fan of Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty”), if you’re a fan of twisting sacred institutions such as the Catholic Church, do not miss this series.
Sorrentino, a native of Naples, turns the church inside out. As the real, modern Catholic Church makes major strides toward the modern world under current Pope Francis, Sorrentino’s pope wants the church to revert practically back to the Inquisition.
Basically, Law plays the first pope who is a complete, 100 percent dick.
All of us in the College of Cardinals could tell the church was going the way of the Italian economy just by the name he chose: Pope Pius XIII. Pope Pius XI (1922-39) reigned under Benito Mussolini who signed the Lateran Accord that gave Vatican City sovereignty as an independent state. Law’s pope is just to the left of a total fascist. He launches a campaign to not only drive all pedophiles from the church but all homosexuals as well. He cuts off communication from the outside world. In his opening speech to us — a five-minute speech he taped approximately 10 times without missing a beat — he starts with, “Knock knock. Knock. KNOCK! Who’s there? Nobody.” He then launches into a speech about how the Vatican will close its doors to all outsiders. No press conferences. No interviews. No merchandise sold in Vatican gift shops.
He won’t even allow himself to be photographed. In one scene we shot on a back lot behind Cinecitta, Italy’s revered studio on the south end of Rome (The Vatican did not give Sorrentino one minute of help, nor has it commented on the series), he speaks to a packed makeshift St. Peter’s Square with his face hidden from light. It doesn’t go over well with the public and neither does his reaction.
To Pius XIII, the only important point of the Catholic Church is to love God. If you don’t love God, you can not be Catholic. If you don’t believe in God, as he tells us, “Prove he doesn’t exist.” Inside his colorfully flowing robes of gold and red, this pope is totally black and white.
One look at Pius XIII, you’d think the Catholic Church had gone hip. Here is this 40ish, fit, American so arrogant he tells an ogling female representative from Iceland’s government, “I know I am incredibly handsome.” The opening of each episode shows him walking in slow motion past masterpieces in the Vatican Museum while Labrinth’s hard rock “Watchtower” plays in the background. Then he turns to the camera and, still in slow motion, winks as if to say, “World, you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”
And we haven’t. This pope doesn’t have a normal background. He didn’t grow up as an altar boy in Italy or impoverished in an Eastern Europe prison state. He grew up Lenny Belardo, in Brooklyn. His hippy parents abandoned him when he was 8, leaving him to be raised by Sister Mary, the toughest nun you’ve ever seen, played by Diane Keaton. His abandonment is a major thread throughout the series. At the core, the pope is a Brooklyn street kid. He smokes. He curses. His accent is just this side of Flatbush, a remarkable feat considering Law was raised in Greenwich, England, and speaks off camera like a polished English literature professor.
But this pope has more conflicts than A.S. Roma’s soccer schedule:
* Pope vs. College of Cardinals. We cardinals, a conservative lot that we are, remain stunned as he lays down laws last seen during the Crusades. He banishes the Vatican’s traveling secretary to Ketchikan, Alaska, after he tells him, “I am not going to travel and you are no longer needed.”
* Pope vs. Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican Secretary of State. As a de facto spokesman for the cardinals, Voiello, played by Naples actor Silvio Orlando, tries unsuccessfully to rein in the new pope. Warnings don’t work. Insults don’t work. Blackmail doesn’t work. The pope always stays one step ahead of him, like a star attacker for Juventus against Voiello’s beloved but second-tier Napoli soccer team.
* Pope vs. Mentor. Played by towering James Cromwell, Cardinal Spencer was his mentor through the pope’s rise through the Vatican. However, Spencer always had eyes on the pope’s throne. Who knew he’d teach little Lenny so well, he’d pass him in the dust? Spencer remains bitter and is one of the few in the Vatican who isn’t afraid to say it.
* Pope vs. the Italian government. In one memorable scene, the pope takes an audience with Italy’s new prime minister. The PM threatens the pope with something highly personal and potentially humiliating if the Vatican doesn’t start paying more taxes; the pope doesn’t blink and counters with the simple boast that he’ll tell all the Catholics in Italy, where there are a few, never to vote for him again. Guess who wins.
*Pope vs., well, the world. After six months, the pope is told the number of visitors to St. Peter’s is dwindling to critical numbers. The Vatican is losing money. The pope smiles. How can anyone care about money? The only thing that matters, as he so often says in the series, is God. Even we cardinals, as celibate as we’re supposed to be, rolled our eyes.
Speaking of failed celibacy, no TV series can survive without sex. Including it in a 10-part series about the Vatican is a challenge. Sorrentino, however, pulls it off tastefully as possible. There is a sordid, almost stomach-turning threeway involving Lenny’s boyhood friend, a missionary played by Scott Shepherd, during his time as priest in Guatemala. The pope tackles the church’s pedophilia issue head on by sending his closest advisor, Monsignor Bernardo Gutierrez, played by Spanish actor Javier Camara, to New York to chase down one of the accused priests.
The fact that Gutierrez admits to being homosexual himself and the pope doesn’t burn him at the stake in St. Peter’s Square goes to Sorrentino’s point: This pope evolves. You’ll hate him in the beginning; you might like him in the end. The final scene in the final episode leaves a major maw in the story line which Sorrentino is currently exploiting as he writes Season 2.
If the subject of the Catholic Church doesn’t interest you, watch merely for the photography. I’ve never seen Rome so beautiful. And I live here. Sorrentino managed to shoot aerial scenes of the Vatican on the most brilliant Italian days, when the sky is the blue of the South Pacific and the sun bounces off Bernini’s white marble statues like flickering confetti. The night view of a bridge spanning the Tiber River with the towering dome of St. Peter’s Basilica glowing like a giant Christmas ornament in the background makes you want to convert just for the architecture. The grass in Vatican City, the world’s’ smallest independent state where the public is rarely allowed, looks like fairways at Augusta with nuns playing soccer and the pope walking with friends, silently plotting.
This series will be massive in the U.S. The first episode receive the highest rating ever for a Sky TV drama in Europe. It has a religion at a crossroads. It has vicious, hidden plots. It has a handsome star. It has illicit sex. It has a star cast. It has vivid scenery. I didn’t get paid a dime for my long days filming in August and September 2015. My visa wouldn’t allow it. However, I do know a hit when I see one.
I’ve already called to be included as an extra in Season 2.