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‘The Young Pope’ review: Jude Law stars in provocative HBO series

Jude Law stars in "The Young Pope" as

Jude Law stars in "The Young Pope" as Pius XIII, who may not be all that pious. Credit: HBO / Gianni Fiorito

THE SERIES “The Young Pope”

WHEN | WHERE Begins Sunday at 9 p.m. on HBO


WHAT IT’S ABOUT Newly elected Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) is a young American named Lenny Belardo. He was elected because the Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), figured he would be his puppet. The Cardinal is about to learn otherwise. The new pope needs allies, and begins to assemble his team, including Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), who raised him at an orphanage. She has been summoned to become his chief adviser. He also knows information is power and forces his confessor, Don Tommaso (Marcello Romolo), to reveal the deepest secrets of others. Meanwhile, Lenny has a sworn enemy — Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), his mentor who desperately wanted to be pope.

In short, Lenny is a piece of work.

This 10-part series was created by Paolo Sorrentino, whose “The Great Beauty” won the best foreign film Oscar in 2014.

MY SAY “What have we forgotten?” asks Lenny, initially in a dream, then in front of a mirror, and finally in front of thousands gathered in St. Peter’s Square to hear the new young pope for the first time. He tells them: “We have forgotten GOD.”

He had struggled with his first historic homily, but a quick Google search must have given him that key line — a famous one. Lincoln first said “we have forgotten God” in the middle of 1863, the bloodiest year of the Civil War. Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn much later picked up the line with a slight variation — “men have forgotten God” — to explain the wreckage of the 20th century.

Lenny — who views himself as God’s representative on Earth — doesn’t like to be forgotten. Like Lincoln and Solzhenitsyn, he also knows the apocalyptic consequences of forgetting.

But he doesn’t like to be seen either, and in fact refuses his image or likeness to be merchandised. He doesn’t like people, and despises tourists because “they are just passing through.” He’s a man of little appetite, and insists on a Diet Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast. He’s vain, petty, devious, conniving, occasionally cruel, less occasionally kind. He esteems Salinger, Stanley Kubrick, graffiti artist Banksy and Daft Punk for one reason: “None of them let themselves be seen.”

The young pope is deeply eccentric. Adding to this eccentricity: He’s an American and he’s young. Popes have never been American, and rarely young. The last was Pope Leo X, elected in 1513 at the age of 37.

Who is this strange new pope and — more to the point — what is this strange new series?

Answers are interrelated. Everything about “The Young Pope” is designed to keep viewers off-balance, just as Lenny keeps his rivals and even closest friends off-balance. Like Lenny, it’s a pattern of contradictions. Style and presentation — even music, or especially the music — weave an almost hallucinatory effect. At moments you may find yourself watching not because you want to, but because you have to. What will Lenny do or say next?

This strange fictional tour through the most sacred real estate of the church will absolutely infuriate some Catholics. But all? Some Catholics will be intrigued, some disturbed, some amused, others puzzled or admiring — Law and Keaton are excellent. Some will see it for what it is: an HBO series that’s entertaining, provocative and exotic.

It is worth pointing out that “The Young Pope,” at least in the early episodes, is not a denunciation of faith but an exploration of faith. Reaching for something profound, this reach may exceed its grasp — blame those contradictions of style and presentation — but Lenny’s powerful exhortation does hint at a deeper ambition here.

BOTTOM LINE “The Young Pope” is a fascinating mess with a puckish sense of humor and an outsized goal — to know the mind of God.

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