Jude Law as The Young Pope

YOU may have noticed a curious meme/hashtag going around social media a few months back: #hotpope. No offence to Pope Francis, but it wasn’t about the real His Holiness.

Starting on SBS on Wednesday night, Australians will finally get to see Jude Law in full papal regalia in acclaimed TV show The Young Pope. The English-language Italian series debuted in the UK last October while the Americans and Canadians drank in its allure in January.

It was that North American premiere that spawned the #hotpope hashtag, with critics and audiences unable to resist commenting on Law’s ravishing visage. Such is Law’s allure these days — Yumbledore, anyone?

Created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty, Il Divo and Youth), who considers the series as more like a “10-hour film”, The Young Pope is as mercurial as its title character. It’s evocative, enticing and enigmatic all at once, at times leaving you amused and at other junctures, bemused.

Sorrentino deliberately set out to conceive a Pope figure that is the opposite of Pope Francis — the opposite of a warm, progressive pontiff reaching out to his followers and empowering them to seek the humanity in faith.

The show starts just as Pius XIII, formerly known as Lenny, rises to the divine post in a conclave election with hinted-at machinations. The College of Cardinals, despite putting their trust in this relatively young American, doesn’t know what he stands for.

Pius eschews traditions and the established order and sets about on his own agenda, which includes elevating Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), an American nun who raised him in the orphanage, as his personal secretary. He’s unpredictable and he’s got everyone on edge once it’s clear he’s not the “telegenic puppet” they hoped he would be.

(And as much as we could make comparisons between the autocratic-tending character and a certain leader of the free world, The Young Pope started production in 2014 and finished filming long before the election.)

The Young Pope is an exercise in what absolute power can look like in the hands of someone who’s confident and self-assured but bracingly lonely.

It’s also interested in the inherent contradictions in faith and people, illustrated in part early on in the juxtaposition between the free love speech Pius dreams he gives versus the recriminatory one he ultimately serves. This contradiction can also be seen in the way the character refuses to be photographed yet Sorrentino almost fetishes Law’s body in the opening sequences with a shot of his bronzed posterior.

Pius himself holds many dualities — he’s unorthodox yet deeply conservative, steely yet childish, says he’s “no one” but demands total fealty. He also favours a cherry-flavoured Coca-Cola for breakfast.

But in many ways, digging deeper into the series isn’t mandatory. Sure, there are power plays and Vatican intrigue but it is possible to devour the series for its atmosphere and striking visuals.

It’s slow and languid and there is great beauty in its sometimes slow-motion camerawork which seems to glide through this unknown world, one where a one-handed nun can be victorious in an early-morning game of football among the dewy grass, all set to “Ave Maria”. There’s something serene about bathing in its grace.

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