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Venice Film Festival 2016: "The Young Pope"

I always feel pretty righteous if I can pull a four or five film day at a film festival, particularly at my advanced age. I also have a semi-firm belief that no matter how passionate you are, or claim to be, about cinema, you kind of stop seeing a bit after five films. In any event, Saturday, September 3 was a four-film day for me, but I’m only writing here about one of them—the others are for my installments about the Bienalle College pictures and the restorations/revivals at the Festival.

My relationship to the work of Italian director Paolo Sorrentino has evolved over the past ten years, into a guarded respect but still not love. I remember hating with a passion “L’amico di famiglia” on seeing it at Cannes in 2006, finding it a snarky exercise by a director who’d learned all the wrong things from the Coen Brothers. 2008’s “Il Divo,” about the reign of Italian politician Giulio Andreotti, struck me as perverse: the actual events of Andreotti’s career were sufficiently outlandish that Sorrentino scarcely needed to turn the story into even more of a cartoon, but that’s what he did, and he turned out a tone-deaf cartoon at that. “This Must Be The Place" (2012), starring Sean Penn as a Robert-Smith-look-alike rock star turned Nazi hunter was slightly better than it sounds. I connected well with the high style of 2013’s “The Great Beauty;” the only speed bump there was that it seemed to want me to take the poor character of its “decadent” protagonists a little more seriously than their flaws actually warranted. 2015’s “Youth” was quite a bit sillier, and not entirely saved by generous performances from Michael Caine, Harvey Keitel, Paul Dano and Jane Fonda.

Which brings us to “The Young Pope,” my 8:30 a.m. movie today. Which is not actually a movie but the first two episodes of a mini-series by Sorrentino, starring Jude Law as the improbable American Pope yclept Lenny Belardo, who has taken the name Pius XIII, and Diane Keaton as his childhood parent substitute, now papal aide-de-camp, Sister Mary. I’ve heard that Sorrentino had actually initially conceived this as a feature film, but couldn’t get it made as such; once reconfigured as a mini-series, it found eager European and American backing. It’s a strange world in today’s business we call show.

The Vatican and its intrigues would seem a perfect setting for Sorrentino’s baroque cinematic stylings, and there are portions of “The Young Pope” that are breathtakingly cheeky, as when Lenny, I mean His Holiness, breaks the Vatican’s no smoking rule because he is, you know, the Pope. But the writing, despite its flashes of exceptionally witty dialogue (the way Lenny lays into a Vatican merchandising manager who humblebrags that she got her Masters at Harvard will be requited by Ivy League skeptics the world over), often lacks, and lacks hard. The series begins with Lenny already elected Pope, and agonizing over the homily he is required to deliver to the faithful. As he dithers, plays politics, and purposefully alienates pretty much everyone in his orbit, beginning with his orders to his household staff to deliver him a Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, the other players of Vatican City express concern. The Vatican’s Secretary of State, Voiello (Silvio Orlando) orders an investigation of the new Pope. Which is weird, because in a prior scene it’s stated that Voiello is responsible for Lenny being Pope in the first place, having maneuvered the vote in Lenny’s favor against on Cardinal Michael Spencer (James Cromwell) who had been Lenny’s mentor in the priesthood. That the Secretary of State of the Vatican would push for a Papal candidate without knowing quite a bit about that candidates past is, as Wallace Shawn says in “The Princess Bride,” “inconceivable.” But such are the dictates of mini-series storytelling, maybe? At least to Sorrentino. If you name your project “The Young Pope” I guess it follows that he’s gotta be Pope in the first episode. And yet. It still makes no sense.

The movie also indicated that the mini-series may have some trouble setting up the kind of “relatable” or “rooting interest” characters that today’s aficionados of “peak TV” (critics, in other words) are so besotted of. Also, there’s not much sex. Although there are certain indications that there may be more. I’m interested enough that I’m going to look at the rest of the series when it hits HBO, but I’m still wary.

To read the rest of Glenn Kenny's coverage from the 2016 Venice Film Festival, click here

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