A Review of HBO’s Series: “The Young Pope”

Yes, I watched HBO’s The Young Pope series. I bought a temporary subscription to HBO and binge-watched the whole series in just a few weeks. Why? Because I wanted to review it here, for the benefit of my readers, and anyone else who might happen to do a search on the topic. Here are my thoughts…

The acting is superb. Every single actor in the series, most especially Jude Law, made a very compelling performance that was fascinating, intriguing and at times humorous.  The acting gets an A+.

The cinematography is phenomenal. The sets look so much like the Vatican, it’s easy to be fooled. It’s done beautifully.


The story line, or basic plot, is also very interesting. The premise of the show is that a young American cardinal, who was an orphan and raised in an orphanage, is dealing with considerable psychological issues. He’s trying to come to terms with the loss of his parents (not dead by the way) who abandoned him at about the age of six, while he’s simultaneously trying to be the spiritual father to 1.3 billion Catholics. He’s basically a traditionalist, who chooses the name of Pius XIII, but simultaneously he struggles with his own belief in God, vacillating between extreme piety and outright atheism. This is paralleled also by his self-confidence, which vacillates between extreme self-assurance to extreme self-doubt. Events surrounding his life seem to confirm that God uses him as a vessel, even to perform miracles, in spite of himself. He’s also good at dealing with corruption in the Vatican, and shows mercy in appropriate ways. He has no problem sacking corrupt prelates. He demands strict adherence to clerical celibacy, no homosexuality, and he intends to do away with many of the modern innovations in the Church that have weakened it since the Second Vatican Council.

However, the series is rife with neo-ultramontanism, or the idea that the pope is basically infallible and practically a demigod. It seems that every pious character believes this, while the impious carry on the public charade while plotting to undermine and unseat the pope. Even the pope himself is a neo-ultramontanist, believing himself to be infallible in all things said publicly as well as some things said privately. In other words, it would seem they all believe the pope is infallible whenever he wants to be, regardless of the circumstances. This, of course, is a heresy rebuked by the First Vatican Council, which clearly states that the pope is only infallible on doctrinal or moral issues when he speaks from the Chair of St. Peter — ex cathedra — a phenomenon that (outside of the canonization of Saints) hasn’t happened since 1950. In contrast, neo-ultramontanism asserts that the pope is always infallible, practically all the time, and cannot error. For this reason, I would say The Young Pope is an HBO series based on cinematic review of neo-ultramontanism not Catholicism.

The depiction of life in the Vatican seems highly unrealistic. One easily walks away with the impression that the Vatican is a lazy and quiet place, where people spend hours in gardens, sitting around and watching nature. They also seem to spend an inordinate amount of time watching nuns do laundry. (I’m not sure what that’s all about.) Does nobody do anything in the Vatican? It’s more than strange. It’s actually bizarre.

Surprisingly, the series does a good job depicting corruption in the Vatican, as well as rampant homosexuality in the priesthood. This leads to a few scenes that are pornographic and caused me to have to fast-forward through them. I was shocked and mortified. For this reason alone, I highly discourage people from watching The Young Pope. It’s gross. You don’t just get porn. You get gay porn. But that being said, Jude Law never played a part in any of this. His depiction of the pope was respectful. It was heretical, neo-ultramontanism, but not pornographic. There is an underlying sexual tone throughout the entire series, which is typical of HBO, so that’s another reason not to watch it. There is a political message pushed in the series as well, promoting the idea that homosexuality should be more accepted in the priesthood, and that all clerics (except the pope) are sex-starved and frustrated.

The character arc of Pius XIII (Jude Law) is fascinating. He goes from a self-absorbed man with a bipolar faith, to a more well-rounded pope who seems to have gotten his act together, just before he has what appears to be a heart-attack and nearly dies. That’s where the series ends. I probably won’t watch the soon-to-be released sequel series called The New Pope. If I decide to force myself through it, I’ll write another review here when the series is over. But if it’s anything like “The Young Pope” it probably won’t be worth it.

1 Comment

  1. I watched the series a few years ago when it first came out. I am a fan of Paolo Sorrentino and he is a practising Roman Catholic, which made him directing the series even more interesting at the time. On the whole I agree with your review here. The dialogue and the setting of the series are fantastic. The arc that Pius XIII takes from the moment he becomes Pope right up to the last moments of the series is riviting and captivating. I really liked how you saw too that this was a movie that critiqued neo-ultramontanism rather than the catholic church as a whole. And I think that is exactly what Sorrentino was going for. The scenes in and around the Vatican where Cardinals rumour and the Pope spends an incredible amount of time watching nuns do laundry is a cinamatic means of conveying how slow and tedious leading the 1.2 billion flock actually is, and it (at least in my opinion) provides a justification for why neo-ultramontanism is a tantalizing ideology for those close to the Pope; perhaps out of pure boredom.

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