Lush, often surreal, filled with contradictory characters and backstabbing intrigue, “The Young Pope” is one of the more remarkable television shows in memory.
Credit for that must go to the Italian film director Paolo Sorrentino (“Youth,” “The Great Beauty”), who directed and wrote the entire series. Sorrentino’s unique cinematic perspective and attitude permeate the show from its opening images. The last time a film auteur transferred his style from big screen to TV with such success may have been David Lynch with “Twin Peaks.”
And like “Twin Peaks,” “The Young Pope” is both strange and wondrous.
The title character is one Lenny Belardo (Jude Law, exulting in the outrageousness), a young American cardinal who is somehow — we don’t know how, no one seems to — named Pope. The show begins as Lenny is taking over the church, clearly intent on shaking things up. And not necessarily in good ways.
Lenny is an orphan who was raised by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who sincerely believes he’s a saint and is quickly brought to the Vatican to be his right-hand nun, a huge break in tradition. There Sister Mary meets the Vatican’s secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), a traditionalist who tries to rein in the pope. Good luck with that.
The young pope smokes. The young pope curses. The young pope orders people around, threatens them and refuses to have his picture taken. And, oh yes, the young pope may or may not believe in God. Depends on his mood.
But he certainly believes in being pope and in the steeliness of his rule; the show is awash in authoritarian excess, making it somewhat disturbingly timely. Watch it and you may think: Let us pray.
Tom Long is a longtime culture critic.
‘The Young Pope’
9 p.m. Sunday