Jude Law and Diane Keaton Star as Sexy Pontiff and Spiritual Sidekick in HBO's 'The Young Pope'

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Photo: HBO

HBO’s The Young Pope — inscrutable, satirical, consistently surprising — calls to mind the pious wisdom of Saint Teresa of Avila: “More tears are shed over answered prayers than unanswered prayers.”

Which is another way of saying this new series will certainly disappoint anyone hoping for a juicy papal potboiler (a Vatican of Cards) or expecting something that delivers a genuine dark night of the soul and at penitential length, like Martin Scorsese’s masterpiece Silence.

And yet The Young Pope somehow gets into the nervous system and under the skin and maybe — by somehow penetrating those infinitesimally small crevices that reveal infinite space — even into the soul. It’s a parable about pride, the vanity of human wishes, the elusiveness of grace and, well, whatever the vaulted converse of all that is.

Jude Law pays Pius XIII (born Lenny Belardo), a newly elected pope possessed of pure, ascetic good looks: His flawless complexion is exquisitely complemented by his snow-white cassock and its fine gold trim. He could pass for a porcelain figurine from the Vatican gift shop, recast to life-size by Jeff Koons.

Much to the distress of the Vatican’s marketing expert, however, Pius refuses to be photographed or to allow his image to decorate so much as a commemorative plate. He will not budge, even though his decision strangles one of the Holy See’s best revenue streams.

“Absence,” he says, “is presence.”

So: We know he’ll never be the patron saint of Instagram.

It’s hard to tell what else Pius has up his commodious sleeves in the course of the first five episodes. Perhaps nothing — which, by Pius’s reasoning, is everything.

At his first meeting with the assembled cardinals he begins on a puckish note. “Knock, knock,” he says. In a less reverent setting this might be met by a red-satined chorus of “Who’s there?” But Pius is simply being rhetorical, and he’s just getting started: “We’re not in,” he answers. “Cardinals, from this day forward, we’re not in, no matter who’s knocking on our door. We’re in — but only for God.” What Pius is proposing, it seems, is an ecclesiastical tough love without any more of those nice interfaith hugs. (“Ecumenicalism? Been there, done that. Tolerance? — doesn’t live here anymore. It’s been evicted.”) The eye of the needle that the proverbial camel already had such a hard time squeezing through is perhaps going to get smaller.

Pius weeds out opponents and troublemakers with firm, pitiless coldness. In fact, he banishes one cardinal to Alaska. When another kneels to kiss his hem and beg forgiveness, Pius pushes him away with a discreet but not-so-gentle kick. (Heartfelt contrition and desperate groveling aren’t the same thing.) On the other hand, he makes no objection when the gathered cardinals pucker up and lower their lips to that same foot in obeisance. He smiles to himself, again and again, with a worldly smugness that isn’t too far removed from Election’s Tracy Flick during her fleeting moments of high-school triumph.

And yet, and yet … when the idea begins to catch fire in the Vatican that Pius is, perhaps, a great and holy man, you find yourself agreeing — or, at any rate, giving up once and for all any notion that this Bishop of Rome could be another Frank Underwood, only colored by light filtered through stained glass.

God works in mysterious ways. So does The Young Pope.

The principal credit for this nettlesome but intriguing complexity goes, of course, to Law, whose performance is scrupulously and — something of a paradox, perhaps — charismatically enigmatic. There’s no winking collusion with the audience, no tip of the miter to let us know how to approach the character or empathize with him.

And he gets terrific support from Diane Keaton as Sister Mary, his spiritual adviser, although her performance is just the opposite of his — open and welcoming. It’s always hard to pin down how Keaton makes herself register so fully in a role, how she does so with such clarity, beauty and realness, but her Mary from the get-go is unflappably pragmatic and touchingly humble. We accept her as a genuine spiritual being.

That holds even when we see her out of habit and wearing a T-shirt that says: “I’m a Virgin .. but This Is an Old Shirt.”

There’s a lot of that sort of thing, by the way, in The Young Pope. The show is the work of Paolo Sorrentino, the acclaimed director of the Oscar-winning Italian film The Great Beauty, and over and over it strikes the same two notes as that gorgeous, memorable and occasionally tiresome film: 1) an irreverent, even surreal absurdity that can be mesmerizing when it isn’t undercutting itself by coyness (does the premiere really need to start with a dream sequence of Pius crawling out from beneath a mound of sleeping fetuses?); 2) a confidently chic minimalism that doesn’t always resist the sin of ostentation. (Yes, that is so a sin.) It’s as if you decided to make a film about the religious philosophy of Pope Benedict XVI, but never allowed your camera to gaze on anything above his famous Prada slippers.

Thank heaven for Jude Law and Diane Keaton. They work miracles.

The Young Pope premieres Sunday (9 p.m. ET) on HBO.

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