‘The Young Pope’ Venice Review: Jude Law Does the Vatican Rag

The first two chapters of the Paolo Sorrentino miniseries seem uncomfortably perched between satire and nighttime soap

“The Young Pope,” a miniseries about the Vatican intrigue following the election of a sexy young American pontiff, seems like an idea that would be pitched by Faye Dunaway‘s rapacious TV exec in “Network.” But here it is, directed by Paolo Sorrentino (“The Great Beauty,” “Youth”) and headed for HBO in the United States.

It’s next to impossible to judge an entire limited series based on its first two episodes, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival, but those early chapters reveal a show that’s either searching for a tone or perhaps creating it as it goes along. In any event, for all its narrative vacillations, the cliffhanger ending of these segments has me planning to tune in to find out what happens next.

Jude Law stars as Lenny Belardo, or rather, Pope Pius XIII, the youngest (at 47) pope ever elected, and the first American as well. (More on that in a moment.) His ascendancy promises anything but business as usual in Vatican City, from his choice of breakfast (Cherry Coke Zero) to his choice of personal right-hand (Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, the nun who raised the abandoned Lenny) to his determination to oversee the political and financial machinations of the Vatican’s slippery Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando).

Pius XIII — historians will make what they will over his choosing of this name as opposed to, say, John XXIV — even wants to change the image of the papacy itself, telling the Vatican’s Harvard-educated director of marketing (Cécile de France) that he wants to keep his visage hidden (citing J.D. Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, Daft Punk and Banksy as precedents) rather than stamp it on a million souvenirs. Over the course of the first two hours, we meet many of the papal players, from duplicitous cardinals to the genuinely faithful, like the devout Monsignor Gutierrez (Javier Cámara).

There’s also the implication that Lenny’s former mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), embittered over not having been elected pope himself, will be making trouble behind the scenes, as well as a suggestion that Lenny’s doubt in the existence of god will make him all the more judgmental and harsh with the questioning members of his worldwide flock.

Writer-director-creator Sorrentino has certainly laid out a number of interesting paths for “The Young Pope” to follow, and one hopes that subsequent episodes bring the show’s intent into clearer focus. There are moments that seem to suggest satire (Lenny dreams of giving a papal address that stuns the crowd into silence with an endorsement of abortion, contraceptives, gay marriage and nuns conducting mass) and others that play more like political machinations out of “House of Cards” or even “Empire.”

The international cast delivers fine performances, although the casting of Law and Keaton in tandem is somewhat bothersome. Why cast Law as an American (his accent is passable, if generic) when a UK-born pope would have been as much of an outsider? Either putting an American actor (say, Matt Damon) opposite Keaton or a British actress (say, Imelda Staunton) opposite Law might have made for a better match-up.

Still, 20 percent of the way into “The Young Pope,” we have a series that asks provocative questions about the nature of power and faith, not to mention the role of the Catholic Church in the 21st century, even if they’re couched in soapy serialization. Let’s see how the rest of the mass plays out.