This extremely strange new drama from Sky Atlantic, created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino, is the story of little Lenny Belardo who grew up to be Pope Pius XIII. He’s young, handsome and sure to be a rock star pope. His adoring crowds and awkward clergy and lay staff are totally lapping it up. Lenny is one part politician, one part dictator and one part gangster. Quite often he’ll offer up to the camera a cheeky grin – Jude Law is having a whale of a time.
In the opening few minutes Lenny spectacularly undermines the whole Catholic church in a nutty dream sequence of his first address – “We have forgotten… to masturbate!” It’s clear this guy is going to shake things up. The whole show looks like a dream; a totally surreal ‘real’ Vatican city populated by odd figures in even odder uniforms, who all know the drill and work to unseen schedules. Around the next corner could be a group of nuns playing amazing athletic football or elderly Cardinals gossiping in ornate robes with large sun hats. Anything is possible.
With no time to lose, Pope Pius XIII is laying down the law with his staff. The only thing he wants is Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, and of course it’s the one thing they’ve not thought of. He refuses to stop smoking in the palace. Every time he lights up it’s with total swagger. Despite his flagrant rudeness he is coddled, every whim satisfied like a petulant toddler or an authoritarian king. Off with their heads! Or in this case, demote them and send them to Alaska. In no way is he afraid of wielding his new powers.
We learn this young inexperienced Pope was selected by the conclave as a compromise between two factions. They assumed because of his age he would be easy to manipulate. But Lenny is a supremely confident, unbendable character with his own agenda. The disappointment is written all over the craggy faces of the supporting cast. They’ve created a monster who could well be in charge for a very long time.
In flashbacks we see that Lenny was a sad little messed-up orphan. His significant mummy and daddy issues are expressed through Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) and Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell). Sister Mary, his surrogate mother, is promoted on day one to a primo special advisor position in his ‘court’. She is to be used as his number one informant. But of course he’s setting up a series of informants, who will be unknown to each other. This is amazing opening play from Lenny, in the style of the Machiavellian House of Cards. We can see why he likes Sister Mary. She also has buckets of sass and seems to have a chequered past – one Cardinal Andrew (Lenny’s brother maybe?) calls her Mummy and she wears an excellent t-shirt when she’s off-duty ‘I’m a virgin but this is an old t-shirt’. Lenny is the protegé of Cardinal Spencer, a bitter old man who is devastated that he didn’t get the top job. He seems to be the only person on the planet who will tell Lenny the truth, and of course Lenny craves his approval and respect. But it seems like it’s all too late.
Secretary of State Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) is also scheming but is a normal football-loving man struggling with a new boss with very different plans to his own. Trying to rein him in seems to be impossible. And now Lenny’s spy Sister Mary is breathing down his neck. You’ve got to feel for the guy.
Everything everyone says is loaded with meaning, even when it doesn’t make much sense to the audience. And there’s the ominous, claustrophobic music – the drums of war. This is a dark and dangerous Vatican City. All the main characters are suffering under one sin in particular – lust for power. Everyone is spying on everyone else. It’s both weird and reassuring that the private lives of nuns, monks and clergy are just as fucked up as the rest of us.
So this Pope is an odd fish – we think he’s going to be a rock star and then he pulls the rug out from under the marketing people by saying he wants to be invisible; like Daft Punk and Banksy. He wants to generate mystery and direct people’s attention to their own relationship with God. But this means no beautiful Papal face on candles, plates and other tat that the faithful love to spend money on. This is not good news to the money men.
Finally after much procrastinating Pius XIII gives a really angry and unsettling first address from the balcony to his devoted public in St Peter’s Square. It’s maybe even stranger than the one he dreamed. There’s no love in it at all, just a bitter demand for inflexible duty, completely going against the advice of Cardinal Voiello and Sister Mary. This is not the gay marriage and masturbation Pope. This guy is super conservative, with a big c and a small c. This is not what the church was hoping for at all, but there can be no recounts. Lenny might look sweet but his attitude is sour and his soul is a dark and troubled place. As Voiello is so frightened of, Lenny might be the Pope who dismantles the church and alienates the faithful.
So in conclusion, this is a very strange show indeed. Complicated and weird, and going down a treat in Italy. You think you have a handle on what’s happening and it flips right before your eyes. These characters are all magnificently flawed and the situations are all completely ridiculous, even before the giant kangaroo turned up. Seriously. There’s a kangaroo in it too. Watch it.
The whole first series is available on Sky and Now TV on demand.