The most compelling and challenging drama series on television at the moment is The Young Pope, showing on Sky Atlantic.
Jude Law gives the performance of his life as a newly elected Pius XIII: right-wing, chain-smoking, deeply cynical and ultra-political. Machiavelli operating in the 21st century.
Directed and written by Academy Award winner (for The Great Beauty) Paolo Sorrentino, life in the Vatican has never looked so sumptuous and corrupt.
This 47-year-old Pope is an orphan, abandoned by hippies and raised by nuns – Diane Keaton is wonderful as Sister Mary, his right-hand woman in the male-dominated hotbed of double dealing. In one scene, he bursts in on her bedroom to discover she’s wearing a T-shirt emblazoned with the slogan “I’m a virgin, but this is an old shirt”.
In this week’s episode, chain-smoking, Cherry Coke-swilling Lenny Belardo (the yankee Pope) starts by declaiming: “I love myself more than I love my neighbour… more than God!” and winks at the camera at the end of the opening credits. This is The Sopranos in cassocks as Pius confides to a sidekick: “I prayed so hard I nearly sh*t my pants”.
The series has received five-star reviews, in the USA and in the UK, and even the Catholic Herald raved about the “mordantly funny story-telling” – but how has this subversive and thought-provoking drama been received in Italy?
Unusually, for a Pope so brilliantly skilled in public relations, there has been no comment from Pope Francis, whose own gift for humility and skill at presentation – shunning the papal apartments for a basic hotel, driving a second-hand Volvo and washing the feet of the destitute – have won him millions of fans in spite of his ultra-conservative views on homosexuality.
From the Vatican itself, there has been a resounding silence. I wonder why? When the first episode aired on Italian television, it was a huge hit, and received the highest rating ever for the first episode of a Sky drama. The Young Pope might masquerade as a high-budget soap – but it tells us some uncomfortable truths about the hypocrisy at the top of the Catholic Church.
My theory is that Pope Francis, who is known to chafe against the pompous people who surround him, has watched the show and is perfectly happy with Sorrentino’s vision.