Chances are if you were watching HBO around the height of the "Westworld" craze, you saw the mysterious and slick ads for "The Young Pope". With a thumping brooding techno beat viewers were offered the intrigue of the Vatican through the story of unconventional looking Pope played by Jude Law. Unfortunately, despite the mesmerizing teasers, I never actually got around to watching the miniseries until months after it's Blu-Ray release and to be honest, I never heard any buzz about it good or otherwise. Screened at the Venice Film Festival and making the rounds on European television months prior to its HBO debut, Paolo Sorrentino's ten-hour miniseries is perhaps a series best digested via a Blu-Ray release.
"The Young Pope" is a series that rewards the patient viewer who is willing to accept ambiguity and non-closure. At its core, it's the tale of Lenny Belrado (Jude Law), an orphan raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton) who rose to power as the Archbishop of New York and ultimately (as the series opens), the newly christened Pope Pius XIII. Naturally, "The Young Pope" wanting to captivate viewers doesn't offer a by-the-book's account of what one would expect from a papal drama; instead it offers up the tale of an unconventional Pope and his unconventional ways. Sorrentino takes the expected machinations in the halls of the Vatican and infuses it with a wildcard of a character; a Pope with heavy emotional baggage and his share of "quirks" (in the first episode, Lenny exhibits his unquestioned power by demanding a high-ranking subordinate fetch him his Diet Coke. Over the course of the nine episodes to follow, Lenny becomes an increasingly more bizarre character and the scheming by those beneath him follows its natural course.
While Law's performance as Lenny is nuanced and amongst the best work of the actor's career; Sorrentino's slow, often plodding and hard to follow narrative often undermines the captivating performance. More an extended art film than a standard dramatic miniseries, "The Young Pope" finds itself sidetracked by mundane moments between ancillary characters and surreal (I'd never have bet a dime on LMFAO supplying the soundtrack to a scene in a papal drama, but Sorrentino refuses to allow his creation to be put in a box. Fortunately, just around the time the series seems to completely lose its course, strong supporting performances and a sturdy spine of richly crafted characters guides "The Young Pope" back on track. Keaton's Sister Mary is as vital to the series as Law himself and turns in a performance that erases the bad taste of years of middle-America pablum from your viewing palette. Silvio Orlando, James Cromwell, and Scott Shepherd all turn in equally fine performances as vital figures in Lenny's life both past and present.
From a technical standpoint, "The Young Pope" is a visually stunning work. Luca Bigazzi's cinematography supports Sorrentino's lofty artful goals nicely, both bringing the mystique of the Vatican halls to life in a natural fashion, highlighting the subtle beauty of the sets, while going into overdrive in the more over-the-top sequences the series has to offer. Ultimately, "The Young Pope" was a series that does deliver on the mystique promised from its slick marketing by HBO, but runs a little long in the tooth when bogged down by some narrative extravagances that ultimately lead to expected plot advancements. In any normal year, I'd argue it was one of the more ambitious TV offerings, as there is more to analyze on repeat viewings, but compared to Lynch's controversial masterpiece "Twin Peaks: The Return" offering viewers a level of artistic confusion light years beyond "The Young Pope's" most obtuse exercise in surreal, I can't help but feel like the end result didn't quite strike all the chords its creator hoped to. With a follow-up series on the way, I am interested as to where Sorrentino and Law will take Lenny and even if it suffers from the same problems as the initial outing, at least I know it will be a series willing to be ambitious.THE VIDEO
The 1080p 1.78:1 widescreen transfer is stunning, capturing Bigazzi's cinematography with elegance. Detail is off the charts and colors are crisp and natural, even when the palette shifts to set an emotional mood. Contrast levels are equally solid and there's not a sign of any post-production tinkering to detract from the cinematic detail of the series.
The DTS-HD MA 5.1 English audio track captures the atmosphere of the settings with clarity and a natural mix. Surrounds are used to great effect with the often unconventional soundtrack and overall, the aural presentation is a wholly balanced affair. A Spanish DTS 2.0 track is included as well as English SDH subtitles and Spanish subtitles.
Sadly, the extras consist of a handful of promotional featurettes running three to four-minutes in length focused on two episodes a piece, while an 11-minute featurette covers the series as a whole, and finally another three-minute piece looks at the set.
While "The Young Pope" sports a technically accomplished A/V presentation that highlights a cinematic presentation and fantastic performance from Jude Law, the entire series as a whole suffers from some pacing issues that cause a sometimes obtuse narrative to be an exercise to finish. I will argue that on a repeat viewing with all the pieces in place at the start, there is more to be gleaned, but the bottom line is "The Young Pope" is not a mass-market piece of filmmaking. Recommended.