I gather the reception to this was mixed at best, but I was gobsmacked at how much I enjoyed this. I’ve never seen anything Paolo Sorrentino’s directed (and despite loving this, none of his other films look like I would want to), but the ten hours of this miniseries are filled with endlessly entertaining visuals and clever presentations at the service of an unexpected character piece. There are enough inventive ideas in blocking and presentation alone here for a couple dozen films. How this ended up empty handed for Sorrentino and the never better Jude Law (who gives one of the best performances in recent memory, encompassing seemingly every human emotion in an organic fashion) is a mystery, and a travesty. But, then again, I’m shocked this film got funded and made, as it is wildly esoteric and bizarre, not at all the comfortable costume drama it appears to be from the outside. Indeed, PBS-honed viewers must have turned this off in droves long before they even understood where Sorrentino was going with the material.
The film starts off as a clever “What if”: What if the Catholic Church followed up our current Most Progressive Pope Ever with a regressive candidate who adhered to the unpopular policies of the church and threatened to unravel the church via its own existent but not necessarily enforced policies and decrees? When Law’s buffoonish pope reveals himself not only as no puppet but as a blistering, Jonathan Edwards-style fearmongerer in the brilliant first homily (in what might be one of the most unexpectedly horrifying sequences in recent memory), it’s a gut punch. Sorrentino will run through a few more such turns before he’s done, and arrive at something far from the anti-clerical appearance the work seems to take initially.
Sorrentino presentation of Law’s pope is one of evolving expectations. Looking back, I deeply admire the film for how it effectively strung the audience along the same interpretations of Law as the characters who surround him: amusement, bemusement, morbid curiosity, terror,
Law’s complexity of character and performance sells how rigid adherence to the beliefs of the church must invariably come off as cold and distant. And it’s not til the end of the film, when Law’s goodness seems indisputable, that one is able to rerun the previous “villainous” behaviors and see their positive function, even if they were brusquely employed. How his faith in certain characters is revealed to not be nefarious but manipulative in the best sense: he sees their needs and brings them catharsis, as in Javier Cámara’s alcoholic monsignor (who gives the second-best perf here behind Law). Even Law’s pigheaded vanity can be read differently in retrospect: dishonoring and mocking the Pope is the same as dishonoring and mocking God. What’s seemingly a personal vendetta is far more overriding than that. And so on, all down the line.