In 2014, Paolo Sorrentino’s “The Great Beauty” won the Oscar, Bafta and Golden Globe for best foreign-language film. His English-language follow-up, “Youth”, wasn’t quite as great or as beautiful, but Sorrentino remains, rightly, one of world cinema’s most adored writer-directors. So it was a surprise bordering on a scandal when he announced that his next project wouldn’t be shown in cinemas at all. “The Young Pope” is a ten-part co-production from HBO, Sky Atlantic and Canal Plus which will begin airing on television in October.
This would have been unimaginable a decade ago. We’ve all heard, many times, that television is the new film, and that there is no shame in a big-screen director trying the small screen instead. But, up until very recently, the transition from film to television has happened in one of two ways. Either a film director will keep their hand in by directing a couple of episodes of an ongoing series, as Andrea Arnold (“American Honey”) did with “Transparent” and Neil Marshall (“The Descent”) did with “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal”. Or else, a film director will help to create a prestigious new series by overseeing the first episode or two, before handing over the reins to a roster of less famous names, as in Baz Luhrmann’s “The Get Down” and Martin Scorsese’s “Vinyl”. Things changed when Cary Joji Fukunaga (“Jane Eyre”) directed all eight episodes of the first series of “True Detective” in 2014: for once, a director was seeing through a mini-series from start to finish, as if he were making a single eight-hour film. But Fukunaga was hardly in Sorrentino’s league in terms of international fame – and “True Detective” followed television convention by giving the “Created by” credit to its writer, Nic Pizzolatto. Now things are changing again.
This autumn sees the debut of not one but two television series written and directed by Oscar-winning auteurs. Just before “The Young Pope”, Woody Allen’s “Crisis in Six Scenes” is premiering on Amazon: his first television work since the 1960s. Allen, in his typically self-deprecating manner, has called his series “a catastrophic mistake” and a “cosmic embarrassment”. But “The Young Pope” is the opposite. Judging by the first two episodes, which were screened at the Venice Film Festival, the series is a mischievous, profound, lavishly stylish and deliciously surreal saga of political intrigue and spiritual enquiry. It could well be Sorrentino’s masterpiece.
Jude Law plays Lenny Balardo, a 47-year-old American who has just been installed as Pope Pius XIII. The smart money was on his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), but Lenny’s election was masterminded by Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), the power behind the papal throne. Voiello had assumed that Lenny would be a “telegenic puppet”, but the new pontiff proves to be an unpredictable, unreadable eccentric who smokes, drinks Cherry Coke Zero for breakfast, appoints the nun who raised him (Diane Keaton, below) as his second-in-command, and refuses to have his photograph either in the newspapers or on the Vatican’s souvenir merchandise. At the end of the first two episodes, it’s far from clear if he’s a genius, a psychopath or a bluffer, but he is an utterly riveting character, and Jude Law relishes the role of a lifetime. The actor is so charismatic as a crocodile-smiling, faux-affable leader that he leaves you in no doubt as to who should play Tony Blair when someone makes “Chilcott: The Movie”.
When I saw the opening episodes of the series on a colossal screen in Venice, I couldn’t help gauging whether “The Young Pope” was noticeably different from Sorrentino’s films – that is, noticeably cheaper or smaller in scale. It wasn’t. The computer-generated crowd scenes in St Peter’s Square could have been better, but otherwise the programme is sumptuously cinematic, from its splendid Roman vistas to its ensemble of first-rate actors to its spine-tingling trip-hop soundtrack. Sorrentino has collaborated with his usual production team, without having to compromise. The only significant difference is that, after two hours, “The Young Pope” is only just getting going.
This feels like a genuine sea change in film history. In the sound era, most feature films have kept fairly close to the two-hour mark. But not, perhaps, for much longer. Now that Netflix, Amazon and HBO are allotting film-sized budgets to their mini-series, directors can get the budget and the mass audience for a story which unfolds over five or six or 12 hours instead. Worrying as this development may be for cinema-owners, it’s exciting for the rest of us. “The Young Pope” marks the dawn of a new medium for film-makers that isn’t quite television, and isn’t quite film, but which is a liberating combination of both.
The Young Pope Italy, Oct 21st; Britain Oct 27th; Germany, Austria, Ireland, late October (Sky Atlantic); France, late October (Canal Plus); America, early 2017 (HBO)