Jude Law Plays a Rule-flouting American Pontiff in 'The Young Pope'

Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
Send in e-mailSend in e-mail
On the set of  'The Young Pope.'
On the set of 'The Young Pope.' Credit: Courtesy
Michael Handelzalts
Michael Handelzalts

Once upon a time, in the good old days, after all was said and done and nothing got resolved, we all used to rely on that elusive and yet reassuring notion of “common sense.” And since these days are rather bad, common sense has started becoming commoner and commoner, and nowadays it is already, like: “come on, sense?!”

That, it seems to me, explains a lot about the lower and lower roads on which the U.S. presidential election campaign traveled toward the finish line of November 8. In its aftermath, some of you are celebrating, others are pissed off, and some of you are just be pissed. Some of you intone “God Bless America,” some of you are inclined to pray. All are interested in how the global market evaluates the green American bill on which it says “In God We Trust” – which has prompted many bartenders to place a dollar bill on the wall along with a sign that reads “All Others Pay Cash.”

That also explains a lot about American TV, which has had – despite the wily ways in which the social media are reshaping our lives and views – a great impact on the presidential race. Some commentators were even betting Trump would win based on their notion that he was “better TV” than his opponent. Which should make all of us – even in Israel – very worried, as our lives here depend to some extent (and some will say “and then some”) on who inhabits the “casa blanca” in Washington, D.C. Most of our TV viewing is made in the U.S.A., and most of it does not make sense. And this is when and where God intervenes in his most mysterious ways, and why I’m writing about “The Young Pope.” This is a brand new series from HBO, created, written and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, starring Jude Law and Diane Keaton, which has been broadcasting in Israel on HOT Plus, on Tuesdays at 22:00, since November 1. (Sorrentino won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Movie in 2014 for “The Great Beauty.”)

The Young (47) Pope of the title is an American – a fictional first at the Holy See – and all those who wander through the opulent corridors of power in Rome play as dirty as they can. The Pope is played by Jude Law, former heartthrob and accomplished actor who needs a new screen persona. He was abandoned at age seven by his hippie parents and raised by a nun (whom he brings to the Vatican as his personal secretary, played by Diane Keaton). The premise of the new series – 10 episodes – seems to be that the new Pope was chosen by the conclave of Cardinals because they assumed that because he is young, relatively inexperienced and unversed in unholy machinations, he will be easily manipulated. Little do they know; but pretty soon they find out (particularly the wily Camerlengo, or chamberlain, Cardinal Voiello, played by Silvio Orlando).

Possibly a nightmare

The first episode provides one shocker after the other, both to the viewers and the Vatican establishment, who have to cope with a Pope who refuses to play by the rules. The viewers, who might have been seduced by the subject matter or the glamour of the star-studded cast, are treated first of all to a view of Law waking up, getting out of bed, and standing nude in front of a full-length mirror, with his back to the audience. So the first thing we discover about the new American Pope is that he has a very shapely bum. Then we see him dressing in his Papal robes, stepping out onto the balcony and addressing the crowds in St. Peter’s Square with a sermon that makes some Cardinals faint.

The shock subsides when it turns out that the sermon was the new Pope’s dream, possibly a nightmare. The Camerlengo tries to break in the new successor to Saint Peter, and to tell him ever so gently that he was installed to be the face of the Church and is expected to let others do their work. He has to cope with the smoke exhaled by the new Pope after he lights up a cigarette. “There is no smoking in the Vatican,” mutters the Camerlengo, and explains that it was so decreed by Pope John Paul II, to which Pope Pius XIII says calmly, “There is a new Pope now,” and takes another drag.

In a weird way, the premise of the new series – which takes place in a setup that is politically different from the American one – reflects a phenomenon that was evident in the presidential campaign: the inability of a well-entrenched system to cope with an individual who refuses to play by the accepted rules. It is not that he – or she – defies the rules; he just ignores them and keeps the other side constantly on its toes, and guessing. Systems – especially political ones – are based on the notion that the other side has a plan. A loose cannon, be his name Donald Trump or Lenny Belardo, the “real” name of the fictional Pope Pius XIII, frightens the system precisely by his looseness, as if he does not know himself what he – or she – is going to do next. Pope Pius XIII even suggests that he may not have been a believer at all, and hastens to say that he was merely joking. The Cardinals don’t find it funny. It looks like this is going to be “The West Wing” meets “House of Cards” under the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel.

With the Pope in the series being American, the producer being HBO, with Keaton and Law on the marquee, and with so many parallels to an election process in danger of straying off course, how come we haven’t heard more about the series in the American press?

The reason, my friends, is blowing in the wind. And the wind says that nowadays you co-produce series, and this one is a joint venture of HBO and several European companies. The series has already premiered in Italy (a huge success, about 1 million viewers), Germany, England, Sweden, Poland, Romania and Israel. In the U.S. it will have its first screening on HBO on January 15, 2017, a mere five days before the inauguration of the new president.

Reports about the success of the series in Italy mentioned that Pope Francis is keeping mum about the series, which purportedly reflects the way things are done in the Vatican. The young Pope in the series challenges all of that. Even Francis, a Pope as conservative as they come (and then some, but in a nice way), did voice a sort of critique of the Vatican establishment in an interview. “What is the difference between the Vatican ‘protocol’ and a terrorist?” he asked the interviewer, and answered his own question by saying: “with a terrorist one may negotiate.”