Saturday 16 December 2017

Television review: Heavens above, Jude passes screen test as Holy Father

The Young Pope (Sky Atlantic)

Jude Law as The Young Pope
Jude Law as The Young Pope
Declan Lynch

Declan Lynch

There was a time when the only sighting of the Pope for most people was his televised Christmas Day appearance on the balcony of St Peter's Basilica, speaking "Urbi et Orbi" - to the City and to the World.

A priestly voice would narrate these proceedings on RTE, helping with the translations from the Latin, keeping us abreast of the Pope's greetings to many countries of the world, as we waited for little Ireland's moment to come.

"How's it goin'?" the Holy Father would say in Irish. Or words to that effect.

And we were happy then, because at that time, such a thing was all that was needed, to make us happy - just "the mention" from the Pope, that vision of the lovely skies of Rome so blue in mid-winter, and for those who were receiving the broadcast most piously, a plenary indulgence.

Indeed you can still get a plenary indulgence, whatever that is, if you watch "Urbi et Orbi" on TV in a sufficiently devout manner, and you can even get one if you are following it on the internet.

But I'll tell you something - you'll be getting no plenary indulgence or any other kind of indulgence for watching The Young Pope, the series starring Jude Law which finished its first run last week on Sky Atlantic, and which is brilliant enough for us to assume that there will be a second series.

Brilliant in parts at least, in other parts just deeply strange, but this is to be expected in high-class TV drama these days, where a touch of the avant-garde is becoming routine. Certainly those of us who grew up with "Urbi et Orbi" as our window into the Vatican, would be thrown a little by the basic propositions here, an American Pope whose name is Lenny, who makes a virtue of the fact that he makes no public appearances, and who doesn't really believe much in God, as such.

As for him being young, well, he is as young as Jude Law, which is relatively young in papal terms, young enough at least to decide that there might yet be some point in giving up the cigarettes which he smokes constantly, tormented as he is by a childhood memory of being left at an orphanage by his hippie parents.

This may have contributed in some small way to his implacably right-wing views, his taking of the papal name Pius an echo of the last Pope Pius who was also, shall we say, something of a traditionalist in doctrinal matters. And it also seems like a strange feature at first, until you realise how skilfully you are being drawn in here - you're actually surprised that the Pope, or at least a Pope played by Jude Law, would be very right-wing. As if all the other popes you've known were traditionally men of the left, until young Lenny arrived with these most unusual notions of conservative teaching on issues of faith and morality.

You even find yourself admiring the intellectual integrity of this largely misanthropic pontiff as he strolls through the gardens with a colleague who is explaining the miracle performed by some candidate for sainthood, a story which the Pope acknowledges is indeed beautiful - unfortunately, he also believes that it is not true.

There is genius too, in the distance he keeps from the masses, and the sense of mystery which it cultivates - one thinks of JD Salinger, whose refusal to engage in any aspect of public life for decades was as effective in creating a persona as if he was on television seven nights a week.

So we start off thinking we're looking at some surrealistic TV experiment, and soon it all starts to feel quite normal, given the innate surrealism of big-time Catholicism anyway, in what your monsignor or your cardinal might choose to call real life.

It is also disturbingly in tune with a time in which there is no such thing any more, as the unexpected. Even if it was reported that Jude Law himself would one day be Pope, rather than just acting the part, we'd have to say that that'd be most unusual, but that stranger things are happening now, in the most venerable citadels of the civilised world.

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