“We have forgotten to masturbate!”
So proclaims Pope Pius XIII to the adoring throngs gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the first homily of his papacy. Yet when it comes to the jaw-dropping moments in the premiere episode of The Young Pope, the Holy Father’s ode to onanism barely even makes the Top 10.
Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino kicks off his highly anticipated series with the surreal dream-image of the new pope emerging from a literal mountain of dead and dying babies. He follows it up with not one but two shots of the pontiff’s bare ass before we’re five minutes in. The smug religious leader then slo-mo struts through a teeming crowd of priests, nuns and cardinals whose multi-colored garb looks might like something out of Game of Thrones‘ – if they weren’t, you know, what Catholic clergy really wear. He has a split-second flashback to seeing a topless woman in his youth. He looks up and hey, there’s a water cooler lit like it’s a visitor from God. His adoring underlings form stunning tableaux in shot after shot, like something out of R.E.M.’s “Losing My Religion” video. He glides to the balcony to give his speech as if attached to the camera, like Harvey Keitel when he gets loaded in Mean Streets. A graphic overlay of black bars slowly spread across the screen, emblazoned with the series’ title. His lunatic grin is the only thing that’s visible.
Pius XIII takes the proverbial stage to the screams of thousands, arms outstretched like a rock star, grinning and gesticulating like his name was Monsignor Mussolini. Rain clouds are parted with a wave of his hands, and out comes the sun. Then, with a gorgeously old-fashioned zoom-in and drum buildup, he drops that masturbation line, the first explosion in a carpet-bombing campaign of unorthodoxy: Why not have extramarital sex, gay marriage, nuns saying mass? In reaction, shocked prelates collapse backwards in unison like they’re in the final panel of a gag cartoon. Panicked priests run through the Vatican halls, screaming for help. Only the intervention of his second-in-command, summarily firing him from the papacy, tips the show’s hand that this was just a dream.
But when this young Pope, a 47-year-old American named Lenny Belardo and played by Jude Law, wakes up from his nightmare, it doesn’t feel like a cop-out. On the contrary, the twist works like a charm, because everything here – from the writing to the cinematography, the score to the performances – is honest-to-God dreamy. The show does the same thing its title character is supposed to do as the leader of the Catholic Church: It provides a breath of madcap fresh air in a dreary, homogeneous TV season.
I reviewed The Young Pope’s fucking fabulous series premiere for Rolling Stone, where I’ll be covering the show all season.