At the end of 2016, HBO released its newest drama series, The Young Pope. At first glance, this show solely appeared to be interesting, but after having finished the 10-episode first season, profound and dark are better descriptors. The series takes you into the strange mind of Pope Pius XIII, aka Lenny Belardo, played by Jude Law, the first American Pope in history. Secrets, Sins, and debauchery run rampant in and outside the walls of the Vatican, and the over conservative Lenny takes on his role to make sure he’s in the know. Along with his stubbornness, mystery and pain run so deep that you yearn for more. Law’s role as Lenny is believable and utter perfection. Let’s dive into HBO’s The Young Pope Season 1 review.
The Young Pope Season 1 Review
The Young Pope isn’t a series that is for the lighthearted, the subject matter covered can be difficult. There are many symbolic references and thematic situations within from art to the constant color red, and a series of rational and irrational relationships the evolve and unwind, enough to keep even historians and theologians intently watching for hours. The beginning sequence shows a series of art, and it’s not just any art hung upon the wall. They chronically cover critical time periods from the Jesus’ birth with Gerard van Honthorst’s, The Adoration of Shepherds to Maurizio Cattelan’s, The 9th Hour. The music used throughout the series also gives an eerie, devilish feel with its electric-techno type spiced with Lele Marchitelli’s instrumental outlook.
In a sea of naked babies, Lenny Belardo emerges and immediately you’re drawn in. There’s an uneasy feeling that overtakes you. The scene changes to Lenny waking up in bed and the radio starts to shuffle stations and go mysteriously in and out of reception. For the first time, we witness either a supernatural entity or Lenny, himself, as that being in nature. Who is he, what is he? Lenny is dark, but there is something that draws the viewer to continue watching. Finding out what’s inside of him could be pure and holy.
Lenny is an interesting character, he likes to accept gifts, does not like his photo taken or be told what to do, and wants to do everything on his own time. He’s a mysterious miracle worker, not revealed right away, but we’re shown small examples. He continues to doubt God’s existence, or so we think, but it may be just his way of showing God to others through his unique thought process and demeanor.
One of the only characters from the beginning who believes in his pureness is his faith mother, Sr Mary, played by Diane Keaton. She does a fantastic job in this role, and her night shirt is comical as well, but you must watch to find out what that says. We see at the beginning via a flashback that Sr Mary takes young Belardo in at the age of 8 after his birth parents, who appear to be hippies, leave him at an orphanage leaving Sr Mary to raise him.
Like that of a President or Prime Minister, one can only imagine being the Pope is not an easy task. There are times when it is gratifying, and there are trying times. You have a job to uphold, and one of the tasks as Pope is to deliver homilies on a balcony overlooking Saint Peter’s Square. Since Lenny’s stubbornness would like him to avoid said task or anything else that relates to public speaking, he puts off writing his first homily as long as he is allowed. He knows the time is quickly approaching and as 9:30 PM on the eve of him to deliver his message; the sun has set. Saint Peter’s square, packed with the anticipation of what the crowd’s new Pope will say. He approaches the balcony, and face darkened, the masses blast into a roaring cheer as Pope Pius XIII begins.
Not only does he begin but in such an odd manner by asking what they, the crowd, have forgotten and then says they have forgotten God. In a scolding tone, he tells them they need to be closer to God than each other and that he, himself, is closer to God than to the crowd. Lenny’s followers don’t expect to hear this from their Pope, especially a brand new one who is attempting to gain acceptance. His big takeaway was, “I have nothing to say to those who even the slightest doubt about God, all I can do is remind them of my scoring.”
He continues to say he doesn’t have to prove God exists; they need to prove God doesn’t exist. If they’re unable to prove he doesn’t exist, it means he does exist. Without God, you are as good as dead. A street-goer shouts out to see his face, Lenny responds for that to happen, they must see God, and when they see God, they will see him.
Unclear as to what his homily meant, the following day the media is requesting a press conference for him to explain in more detail. Lenny refuses to do such a thing, but tells Sr Mary she will be doing the press conference in his place and this leads to more confusion. Lenny continues this path of mystery and says “absence is the presence, fundamentals of mystery, the mystery that will be at the center of the church.”
Sr Mary goes to talk with Cardinal Michael Spencer, Lenny’s faith father and mentor, played by James Cromwell who genuinely knows Lenny as much as Sr Mary does. Michael feels as Lenny’s parents rejected him, he seeks them within himself. He feels Lenny wants to make the world suffer for what he has felt from that rejection. We can see this is a theme within just the first few episodes as Lenny continues to flash back to him as a young boy, walking in the darkness, alone, searching for something. Sometimes we see his young parents getting on a boat, watching him as they leave the dock, leaving Lenny by himself. Lenny’s character is constantly struggling with the abandonment of his birth parents. Lenny tells Sr Mary she always talks about his holiness and the miracles he can perform but not the only miracle he needs and is to see his parents again. She tells him to have faith, and he will see them again. He says he is getting old and does not want to see them dead.
We also see a series of flashbacks with a beautiful young blonde girl, and early on we are unsure of who she is. Come to find out it was the one girl Lenny was fond of when he was younger, and he continues to wonder where she went. We don’t know of his intention in the present, but that is revealed later as a scandal approaches the highest level between Cardinal Voiello, Vatican’s Secretary of State, a veteran insider of church politics, played by Silvio Orlando. Cardinal Voiello works very closely with Lenny once he became Pope and you see the transition of this relationship evolve.
Ester played by Ludivine Sagnier, a resident of Vatican City, married, claims to be a devoted Catholic although her continual affair with one of the priests in the Vatican would lead you to believe otherwise. You want to like her, but her aloofness makes it rather difficult at first. Ester is an important character in the series, and the relationship that develops between Lenny and her is one that sometimes seems to go astray, but once you see the understanding, you get back on track. She and her husband are sterile but yearns and feverishly prays for God to intervene to make this happen.
Cardinal Voilello and many others would like Lenny to resign; his attitude, ruling, and everything in between are not welcoming. Unwilling to voluntarily leave, the Congregation for the Clergy takes it upon themselves to do what they need to remove him. They attempt to set him up by using Ester as their pawn. She becomes closer to Lenny, and again the viewer doesn’t know whether to like her or not due to the uncertainty of her intentions.
Throughout the series, we hear bits and pieces about a man named Archbishop Kurtwell. Kurtwell, we know, is under investigation for possible sexual allegations but to what extent is unclear. That is until Lenny advises Cardinal Gutierrez, played by Javier Camara, to leave for New York and investigate but not come back until he has actual evidence of the allegations. Cardinal Gutierrez is extremely out of sorts as he has never left the walls of the Vatican since he arrived many years ago. We know a bit of Gutierrez’s character early on, but there is much more that evolves after we see him become a major character in the last few episodes. What Gutierrez finds in New York under this investigation is a tipping point and turning point to Lenny’s character, and we feel that more of this new persona will be brought forth in Season 2.
Each character thus far has encountered many growing opportunities, some less fortunate than others but nonetheless each has evolved a lot over ten episodes. We’re pleased to see how the story comes together here in the 10th episode. Saint Peter square is packed, but this time instead of the night sky, its daylight. Cardinals are out and ready surrounding their Pope, and as Lenny approaches the balcony, he looks at the people for the first time, he smiles.
They all wait. Lenny speaks and says “who is God, God is a mind that opens.” He tells the full story of the Blessed Juana, a story we have not heard entirely before now.
We went back and forth on telling this story and felt it was better to watch it and not give it away. What we will share is part of the dozens of questions some children were asking the Blessed Juana as she lay dying, “are we dead or are we alive, are we tired or beggars, are we healthy or sick, are we good or bad, do we still have time or has it run out, are we young or are we old, are we clean or are we dirty, are we fools or are we smart, are we true or are we false, are we rich or are we poor, are we kings or are we servants, are we good or are we beautiful, are we warm or are we cold, are we happy or are we blind, are we disappointed or joyful, are we lost or are we found, are we men or are we women.”
“It doesn’t matter” replied the Blessed Juana and added, “God does not allow himself to be seen. God does not shout or whisper or write or hear. God does not chat. God does not comfort us.” And all of the children asked her, “who is God?” and Juana replied, “God smiles” and only then does everyone understand.
The story is so impactful and influential; it triggers many thoughts. The most important thing is the element of Catholicism in this scene and how it can replace any other religious belief in a god, or in a spiritual aspect. Although there is an attachment to God as a reference, there is no actual attachment to one religion, which makes it more impactful. As he tells this story, we see a recap of the entire season and how each one of the questions the children asks reflects back to a character we saw along the way. Some may have been a small part and forgotten, others large and still engraved in our minds, but each played a bigger role than we once thought, and we see this during this time.
Lenny continues, begs all of them to smile. He takes the telescope Belardo gave him to watch each smile, and he sees some familiar faces but is unsure of the actual existence. Lenny encounters for the second-time heart attack symptoms but assures everyone it’s nothing. As he waves to the crowd and steps back from the balcony, he takes some deep breaths, his eyes roll to the back of his head, and he sees Jesus in the clouds. Whether he is dying is left to be seen, but given we have Season 2 to look forward to, we are going with panic attack symptoms, and he will continue to rise above as Pope Pius XIII.
The camera backs up upon Vatican City and Rome, and HBO’s The Young Pope Season 1 comes to a conclusion.
Now, if you think there’s more to this story, you’re correct, much more. We cannot put out every detail here. Otherwise, it would spoil the season for you and that is not the intent. The intent is to make you engaged enough to want to watch for yourself, to draw your conclusions. That’s a wrap for The Young Pope Season 1 review. We’ll all see what happens in The Young Pope Season 2.
Directed by Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino
• Diane Keaton as Sister Mary
• Scott Sheperd as Cardinal Dussolier
• James Cromwell as Cardinal Michael Spencer
• Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello
FTC Disclosure: HBO provided Beantown LLC with one (1) Digital HD code of The Young Pope for review purposes. This writer’s opinion is 100% her own and not a paid product ambassador.
All photos and video are the courtesy and property of HBO Home Entertainment © 2017.
This review was written by Katie Launderville with editorial assist from yours truly.