The Young Pope is an irreverent depiction of a parallel universe; it may offend some of the Catholic faithful, but its real aim is to provoke.
The 10-part series, which premieres next week on SBS, is an absurdist vision that hovers delicately between satire and gangster movie soap, starring British actor Jude Law as Pius XIII, a firebrand American with a weak spot for Cherry Coke Zero and cigarettes.
When he somehow ends up with the top job, the cardinals who pull the strings at the Vatican are horrified they can’t control him.
Instead they watch aghast as he unleashes a sweeping reform agenda that flies in the face of contemporary wisdom about public relations.
His stance on homosexuality and abortion marks him as a reactionary, and his withdrawal from public engagements and the media — in the mould of reclusive artists like J D Salinger and Daft Punk — is a bold, even radical attempt to short-circuit the 24-hour news cycle in order to create an enigma that draws people in.
Oscar-winning Italian writer director Paolo Sorrentino (Il Divo, The Great Beauty) has continually explored the connections between fame, power and celebrity.
Pius XIII’s PR blackout is of course at odds with the recent tradition of Catholic leaders beginning with John Paul II.
As if to hammer the point of difference, a life-size statue of this most media-friendly of popes appears in the opening title sequence used from episode three, unceremoniously crushed under a falling star, presumably a symbol of the Holy Spirit.
Seldom have depictions of the papacy on screen been this playful — or potentially heretical.
There have been exceptions, including Nanni Moretti’s 2011 comedy drama We Have a Pope and Federico Fellini’s fanciful Roma (1972), a cinematic essay to the Eternal City which featured a Vatican party with roller-skating priests and a fashion show.
Sorrentino’s vision seems indebted to the absurd, slightly surreal tone of that film, and he’s on the record citing Fellini as a key influence more generally.
But while some of his previous films have tended to overheat with a devotee’s exuberance, it seems the gruelling enterprise of making 10 one-hour episodes has muted his style, and the trademark crane shots and wide angle lens work are less ostentatious.
What also strikes you is the melancholy in the show, an emotional tone Sorrentino has often turned into something maudlin, but here remains measured. The source is a semi-autobiographical thread about adults grieving lost parents. (Sorrentino’s died when he was in his teens, killed in their sleep by a gas leak.)
He imagines Pius XIII abandoned by a hippy couple as a small boy and raised in an orphanage by a nun who later becomes a close advisor (Diane Keaton) — a character loosely inspired by Sister Pascalina Lehnert, secretary to the wartime Pope Pius XII.
This traumatic childhood experience is key to understanding Pius XIII’s often psychotic behaviour, but Law’s meticulous performance of a ruthless but charismatic and damaged man transcends simple categorisation.
The Young Pope is not an analytical examination of dysfunction. Its strength lies in its subjective depiction of emotion and mood over plot and events.
Its dreamy evocation of a Vatican that appears like a sun-dappled terrestrial paradise, but is in fact a stage for ruthless political manoeuvring and existential crisis, is fascinating.
Meanwhile, Pius XII’s slowly evolving relationships with various key players — including his Machiavellian secretary of state (Silvio Orlando), the papal PR manager (Cécile de France), a devout wife of a Swiss guardsman (Ludivine Sagnier) and a childhood friend from the orphanage (Scott Shepherd) — provide compelling through lines.
The show’s overarching meaning, perhaps, remains elusive or even contradictory. But it’s best to take a step back, and not expect rigorous internal logic. Certainly, what The Young Pope doesn’t demand is a solemn audience.
After all, there’s a moment just before Pope John Paul II’s statue gets crushed by the flying piece of space rock when Jude Law — dressed in flowing white papal robes — turns to the camera, breaking the fourth wall, and gives us a cheeky wink.
Audiences would do well to watch the show with the same spirit of playfulness.