“Moonlight,” as Uri Klein noted in these pages last week, is one of the most beautiful films of 2016. It’s a sensitive, painful, intelligent, gentle and complex work that traces the formative events in the coming-of-age of a gay black youth from Florida whose mother is a crack-taking prostitute and for whom the dominant male figure in his life is a drug dealer. There’s only one superlative I wouldn’t use for “Moonlight” – namely, “bold.” The visual puritanism of a movie that hides its sexuality undoubtedly makes it easier for conservatives to digest, and some claim that this makes it a universal story about otherness, far beyond the gender aspects. And in “Moonlight” there is no revelation, primacy or innovativeness for anyone who watched the fourth season of the television series “The Wire,” about the ill-fated children in the crime neighborhoods of West Baltimore. The deeds of the high-school students Duquan, Namond, Randy and Michael are “Moonlight” a thousand times over. The violence, dangers, prejudices, neglect they experience – four tragedies, each of which is a dark and non-cathartic epic in its own right – are depicted by the series creator, David Simon, in minute detail, with all their social-political-economic implications. “Moonlight” pales by comparison.
The disparity between “The Wire” and “Moonlight” reflects the biggest advantage television has over the cinema: intelligent use of the breadth of scope that TV permits. Used by the right person, it can result in tremendous artistic achievements for television. One such person is the Italian director Paolo Sorrentino, whose 2013 film “The Great Beauty” won the Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film. “The Young Pope,” the first television series in Sorrentino’s productive career, went on air at the end of 2016.
It’s the story of a new pope (Jude Law), a blue-eyed American hunk. He’s a tough cookie who unnerves the Vatican, the Catholic establishment and the masses of believers, right at the start of his papacy. In the best tradition of Italian cinema, Sorrentino is an aesthetic wizard who is in absolute control of the film medium and knows how to tell stories that raise highly meaningful questions about the essence of human existence. That was apparent in his 2011 picture, “This Must Be the Place,” starring Sean Penn, about a hermetic rock star who sets out to hunt down the Nazi criminal who maltreated his parents; in “Youth” (2015), which is set wholly in a luxury hotel and follows the colorful characters who populate it; and of course in “The Great Beauty,” a love poem for Rome, the director’s city.
As the title suggests, “The Young Pope” (available on HOT VOD) also takes place in Rome, or more precisely in the Vatican, the papal residence, which Sorrentino shoots with the same visual virtuosity that resides in the site’s art works and architectural monuments. Even before getting caught up in the frame story, the branch-offs, the characterizations, the momentum, the dynamics and the acting, you can fall in love with “The Young Pope” just by looking at it. Sorrentino has placed a high aesthetic bar here, which television will now have to meet. For example, the relations he creates between picture and sound, and his ability to use the soundtrack to heighten the drama. But the series possesses numerous qualities beyond its gorgeous look.
Men in robes
The pope is Lenny – officially, Pius XIII – a hip American who is familiar with the electronic music duo Daft Punk. This point of departure is a brilliant stroke that defamiliarizes everything we thought we knew about the religious hierarchy, and holds a mirror up to it that reflects it in multiple forms. Some maintain that Sorrentino is caricaturing the Catholic establishment, but the series’ scale of realism is secondary to how much we learn (on the assumption that you’re not a graduate of a school for cardinals) and how entertaining it is. Think of political intrigues, secret affairs and deviations in the style of “Game of Thrones” and “House of Cards,” only with men in robes.
In addition to his ability to create frames that look like minor masterpieces of art, Sorrentino also knows what he wants from his actors. Law, in the lead role, is simply wonderful, at last realizing his full potential, which was rarely seen in his film career. He succeeds in conveying the conflicts, the agenda, the emotional complications and the traps in which Lenny finds himself with nuance-laden elegance, together with larger-than-life gestures appropriate for the head of the Church.
Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, a nun who adopted Lenny after his parents abandoned him and is instrumental in shaping his personality, is simply fantastic. She played the wife of Michael Corleone in “The Godfather” and now is again the strong woman for someone who is in one way or another the head of a mafia. This informs her role with a classic Italo-American aura. Yet despite the leading actors’ excellence, it’s Silvio Orlando as Angelo Voiello, the Vatican’s secretary of state and chief conspirator (his real god is Diego Armando Maradona), who steals every scene.
What really hurtles “The Young Pope” into the stratosphere is its engagement with the tension between religion and faith; between the ritual, the laws, the tradition, the legends of the heavenly imperative and the role religion plays in human society, and divinity-related questions that even the greatest of the faithful wrestle with. It’s not certain that answers will be found here, or anywhere, but as Lenny/Pius himself says, there’s no need to apologize for beauty – which is one thing “The Young Pope” has in abundance.
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