Monday 23 April 2018

The best bad guy? Are you ready for the anti-hero pope?

A controversial series featuring Jude Law as a devious American pontiff is among the highlights of Venice's film festival

Jude Law as Lenny Belardo
Jude Law as Lenny Belardo
Jude Law in The Young Pope

Sarah Hughes

From Tony Soprano to Walter White, television has always loved a conflicted bad guy, but are audiences ready for the Holy Father as antihero?

That's the question posed by The Young Pope, acclaimed Italian director Paolo Sorrentino's audacious new drama series starring Jude Law, which received its world premiere at the Venice film festival last night, winning over even the notoriously hard-to-please Italian press with a glittering, irreverent tale of faith, doubt and papal intrigue.

The 10-episode series, which is broadcast on Sky Atlantic next month, is the Oscar-winning Sorrentino's first foray into television. Beautifully shot - Sorrentino's camera swoops through the Vatican's corridors and enclaves (in reality an immaculately constructed film set in Rome's Cinecitta studios) illuminating saints and sinners alike.

Often wickedly funny, The Young Pope centres on Law's Lenny Belardo, a seemingly insignificant American cardinal who finds himself elevated to the highest office in the Roman Catholic church thanks to the machinations of the college of cardinals.

Jude Law in The Young Pope
Jude Law in The Young Pope

The Vatican's biggest players swiftly discover that Belardo, who takes the inauspicious name Pope Pius XIII, is not quite the pushover they presumed and the stage is set for both an almighty tussle for power and, perhaps more importantly, a tussle for the power of the almighty.

"It's the sort of subject that doesn't come up often on television," says Andrea Zappia, chief executive of Sky Italia (the series is a Sky Original Production co-produced with French company Canal+ and US cable giant HBO), adding that The Young Pope's complicated treatment of faith - Belardo is by no means a progressive in the Pope Francis mould - may make it a hard sell.

"It's not an easy treatment, so we are aware that it may have a selective appeal, [but] when I first read the script it surprised me.

"I felt that it was both a very deep story and a surprising one, which ultimately develops into a great journey about faith."

Close up: Guests pose on the red carpet before the premiere of The Young Pope in Venice Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images
Close up: Guests pose on the red carpet before the premiere of The Young Pope in Venice Photo: TIZIANA FABI/AFP/Getty Images

Not everyone is likely to agree. The decision to make Belardo a conservative, God-fearing pontiff is a potentially controversial one, albeit true to the character's American roots, as is the show's often satirical tone, which reaches its apogee with a scene in which Belardo talks to his own confessor about whether God's representative on Earth actually believes in Him.

It's a scene which may well enrage devout Catholics - bloggers in the US have already questioned HBO about the show's depiction of the Church, leading the channel's programming chief, Casey Bloys, to concede: "It's not wildly inaccurate but ... there is some creative licence."

Sorrentino himself remains unconcerned by any potential backlash.

"It would be a mistake to think the Catholic church is now on a long march to modernity," he says.

"Obviously our pope is very different from the current pope, but that's not to say that you couldn't get a conservative pope like this after a liberal one. In fact I think that's very realistic."

The first two episodes ask a number of questions about the role of the Catholic church in the 21st century and the director admits he's keen to examine the nature of faith and what it means to possess, or lose it. "I have always been fascinated by the church and the role it plays in our society, and I wanted to be able to examine that in depth," he says.

"Working in television gave me the chance to combine the strengths of that genre - the chance to tell a more in-depth narrative - with the visual strengths of cinema. I see this as a 10-hour film."

It helps that the cast is so strong. Diane Keaton stands out as Sister Mary, the nun who raised Belardo from boyhood and who has her own opinion on the role he should play in the world, while James Cromwell is on fantastically bitter form as the young pope's former mentor who believed becoming il papa was his destiny.

The real revelation though is Law, who gives Belardo both a slippery, shifting charisma and just enough vulnerability to ensure that, like the increasingly confused cardinals, we're never quite sure where he really stands.

"Initially I got involved simply because of the opportunity to work with Paolo and play a character who was rich in contradictions and character; then it suddenly hit me like a ton of bricks that I would be playing the pope, and I really didn't know how to do that in a believable way," says Law.

"But Paolo kept reminding me that I wasn't playing the pope; I was playing a man who happened to be the pope."

The Young Pope isn't the only screening causing controversy at Venice this year. Brimstone, Dutch director Martin Koolhoven's revenge western starring Dakota Fanning as a young woman on the run from Guy Pearce's diabolical preacher, was loudly booed at the press screening yesterday, with many critics condemning the levels of violence.

Today will see the return of Mel Gibson, who presents the second world war drama Hacksaw Ridge, his first film as a director in ten years, having revealed this weekend that he is also working on a sequel to his surprise 2004 hit The Passion of The Christ, tentatively titled Resurrection.

Critics will be closely watching these other highlights of the Venice Film Festival:

La La Land

Damien Chazelle's swooning hymn to the Hollywood musical stars has Ryan Gosling and Emma Stone as two lost souls in love in modern-day Los Angeles. Heartstoppingly romantic, it's an early Oscar frontrunner.


French director Francois Ozon's latest is a surprisingly straight but deeply moving period piece inspired by Ernst Lubitsch's 1932 drama Broken Lullaby and is set in a small German town just after the first world war.

Nocturnal Animals

The second film from fashion designer Tom Ford is a gloriously melodramatic take on Austin Wright's 1993 novel Tony and Susan.

Amy Adams and Jake Gyllenhaal are the stars getting taken for a ride in this addictive mash-up of David Lynch and Jim Thompson.


We all know pregnancy can be murder - literally so in the case of Alice Lowe's delirious black comedy, which sees a heavily pregnant mother-to-be embark of a killing spree apparently. The Young Pope begins its run on Sky Atlantic on 27 October


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