Though most may recognize the Neapolitan auteur, Paolo Sorrentino, for his luscious visual style, outlandish characters, and general affinity for the absurd, another motif informs the director’s work: satire. This is true of Sorrentino’s first film to gain national recognition, Il Divo—a dense political drama in which Sorrentino presents a window into the toxic bureaucracy of the Italian political system. This is true, too, of Sorrentino’s most successful film to date, the Felliniesque La Grande Belleza. While not as overt in its critique as Il Divo, The Great Beauty (La grande belleza)—which, it should be mentioned, was awarded the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film—has at its heart an uncompromising derision of the vapidity and artistic emptiness of the Italian intelligentsia in Rome.
Another, less prominent satirical thread in The Great Beauty is Sorrentino’s commentary on the apparent materialism of the Catholic Church in Rome. What seemed in that film like a comic aside has become the primary subject matter of the director’s latest creative endeavor: The Young Pope.
The show, which stars Jude Law and Diane Keaton, will air on HBO on Jan. 15. But if you’re like me, and you can’t wait to see the latest from the man who brought us that eeriest and most gorgeous of films The Great Beauty, you can find streaming options through a Google search. What you’ll see in the first episode (admittedly, the only one that I’ve seen) is Sorrentino’s most daring, blatant, and exciting—yet ultimately least successful—satirical effort.
Let’s establish some context. The Young Pope is not, as I’ve mentioned, Sorrentino’s first foray into the universe of satire—or even satire aimed at the Church. The Great Beauty features a side story about a Mother Teresa-like character, who is presented as a highly-touted yet seemingly impotent figure. But then something unbelievable happens: the main character, Jep, stumbles upon the Teresa-like woman performing an actual miracle. And so what begins as a tame, vaguely comical representation of the Church becomes a portrayal smacking of nothing short of reverence.
Then Sorrentino released the pilot of The Young Pope, an episode that, without giving too much away, concerns (as promised) a young and exquisitely petulant Pope, Lenny Belardo (played by Jude Law). With the exception of a single—if imaginary—speech in which he fantasizes about proclaiming from the papal balcony a sermon of remarkable (and, no doubt, deeply sinful) progressivism, Belardo is an insufferable pig, a chain-smoking, rude, thoughtless, absolutely irredeemable broken promise of a human. And this, I think, is supposed to be the show’s charm.
But The Young Pope isn’t surprising just because of Sorrentino’s history of mild reverence toward the Church; the show is also surprising because of Sorrentino’s history of making good cinema. In other words, the pilot is awful. Its critique of the Church is superficial—pornographic, even, relying on the cheap shock factor of having a Pope drink diet coke and make nuns cry for no reason. This is awful for two reasons: first, it’s pointless, frivolous comedy; second, it’s pointless, frivolous comedy about, of all things, the Catholic Church—an institution that, it’s pretty safe to say, has invited some real ripe opportunities for satirization throughout its multi-century history. The Young Pope is offensive for all of the wrong reasons, chasing after insipid gasps instead of thoughtful commentary.
South Park is a show that has often been called offensive. And, of course, it has been offensive. But in South Park the offensiveness is layered; in Sorrentino’s show, it is not. That is to say that when someone is offended by something in South Park, it is not only (when the show is successful) that they have heard or seen something shocking, but also that they have been forced to consider an alarming yet undeniably real and painful aspect of society. The same cannot be said for the humor of The Young Pope, which relies purely on superficial gags to convey its perverse, mean-spirited brand of televised trolling.
I would have expected better from the man who brought us the subtle Il Divo, the enlightening The Great Beauty, and, if we’re going to name all of them, the plain fun Youth. I’ve only seen the one episode of The Young Pope, but if Sorrentino continues the baseless mocking tone of the pilot throughout the rest of the 10-episode miniseries, then the auteur will no doubt lose many fans, including me.