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A 'Young Pope' stuns, 'Homeland' pivots and 'Taboo' confuses

Jeff Simon

"I will never love my neighbor as myself," admits HBO's "Young Pope" in this weekend's third episode of Paolo Sorrentino's show. "I love myself more than my neighbor," he reiterates a few minutes later in case, we didn't get the point.

This Young Pope calls himself Pius XIII. His real name is Lenny Belardo and he's an orphan from Brooklyn. That, of course, makes him the first American pope.

He was raised, from age 7, by Sister Mary, who now functions as the Pope's strong right hand, much to the dismay of Cardinal Voiello, the conniving Vatican Secretary of State.

In the operatic arias of ensuing heresies, blasphemies and other unmannerly things he delivers before the episode is over are these: 1) He complains of a God that he keeps praying to anyway for "something to happen ... but nothing ever does." 2) "Everyone must learn that it takes suffering to find God." 3) When a believer tells the young pope he is "as handsome as Jesus," he replies "I am more handsome than Jesus."

"You'll be a terrible Pope," growls his old American mentor Cardinal Spencer and "the most dangerous of modern times." That's because he still carried around his psychic wounds as a nine-year old.

It hasn't escaped notice that resemblances to fables of Reality TV and Real Estate Moguls taking over the White House don't seem accidental on "The Young Pope." But then that particular American fable -- which even Mark Twain or Ambrose Bierce might have been leery of -- is going to inhabit our movie and TV and literary tales for a while.

Which is why I want to tell you how much I love "The Young Pope," which may be one of the nuttiest "prestige" mini-series  ever to come from from the wild and woolly kitchens of HBO. Compared to "The Young Pope," "Westworld" was an ice-making machine. "Pope" continues through January.

I knew something nuts was going to happen the minute I saw that Jude Law was playing the Pope and Diane Keaton was playing Sister Mary.

Law is a pretty good actor but, far more than that, he is a movie star so handsome that his face is a virtual chiseled affront to the rest of male humanity. Keaton, 71, is dressed in nun mufti all through it with her face framed by a wimple so that every unmade-up wrinkle and bump is visible.

For the Pope's first homily, we have already seen him refuse a spotlight for his handsome face so that he remains in darkness throughout. No one in St. Peter's Square can see anything but his silhouette. The world's Catholics, he says, must learn that "absence is presence. These are the essentials of mystery."

The writer/director of this fantasy about a post-modern papacy and its politics is Paolo Sorrentino, who gave us the movies "The Great Beauty" and "Youth," two acclaimed fantasies geared to an Italian director with American yearnings.

"The Great Beauty" was shamelessly Fellini-esque. From Fellini, Sorrentino has learned virtuosic ways to exploit the human face, in particular the glorious profusion of homeliness in our species. In his mini-series, for instance, the Vatican Secretary of State, is played by Silvia Orlando, an actor who, on screen, has a mole in the Southern Part of his cheek so huge that it looks as if he forget to use a napkin after eating a bowl of particularly ugly cereal.

At least half of the dialogue of the mini-series thus far has settled into near-operatic aria meant to show us a kind of anti-church that is indecipherable underneath all the corrupt politics and weird theological battiness.

In sheer oddness, it has become one of my favorite HBO fantasies of recent days.


Meanwhile, modern presidential politics have also turned up in the new "Homeland" on Showtime Sundays. The show's writers obviously thought that Hillary Clinton was going to win the election because the new president on the show is played by Elizabeth Marvel, a fine actress getting a nice shot at playing a role with authority.

Despite that, she is being depicted on the show as being as alienated from the intelligence community as Donald Trump has seemed to be. On "Homeland," though, the intelligence community is represented by F. Murray Abraham and Mandy Patinkin, who remain interesting while every one of the show's inside wanderings up and down the social scale have become vastly less so.

Heroine Carrie -- as played by Claire Danes -- has devolved into a frequent annoyance on what was, once upon a time, her own show.

When Abraham and Patinkin are having dark conspiratorial discussions about history and doom, count me in. Otherwise, my mind is wandering.


That's why I have so little to say about the promising but murky "Taboo" on FX. I've seen the first three episodes -- including the one to come on Tuesday -- and I'm not exactly sure what specific "taboos" we should be thinking of.

Cannibalism certainly seems to be one of them. Tom Hardy plays main character James Keziah Delaney, a man who admits ominously  "I know things about the dead." He seems to have been found next to corpses in his past with blood smeared on his chin. Aside from being too funky a cuisine for even Anthony Bourdain, it contributes to making his different costumes some of the grubbiest and most stained this side of "The Walking Dead."

But then maybe the big taboo may be incest in which Delaney's co-star is James' half-sister (who is played by Charlie Chaplin's grand-daughter).

The series is all about what happens after a fellow disappears and returns 10 years later in 1814 from Africa where he has compiled a fortune. He comes back for the funeral of his much-despised father to take over the family business and aim it directly at the East India Company.

I had great hopes for "Taboo" for one reason: Hardy and writer Steven Knight collaborated on an astonishing recent film called "Locke." The film was a tour-de-force for both Hardy and writer-director Knight in which all we see is one man in a car driving down a highway. He is traveling to a destination we only eventually discover and talking on his car phone the whole time during a period in his life when it is, quite literally, falling apart in every way.

It was an amazing film. Compared to that, "Taboo" is a grubby, swollen TV gothic that has its moments but, aside from Hardy and some atmosphere, not much else.

Unlike, say, the prodigiously costumed, designed and landscaped "The Young Pope" which, somehow manages to get screwball malevolence out of the post-modern church.

"The Young Pope" has been, so far, beyond all my previous imaginings.

"Taboo?" Not so much.


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