This review comes with a caveat. Unlike everything else I have or will see at the festival, this was not a completed work. It was two parts of a ten-part miniseries. In a sense, I have seen only one-fifth of a film, because Paolo Sorrentino has clearly written and directed this exactly as though it is one long film. (There was, for example, no indication of when the first part ended and the second began.) So, it is possible that any critical or favorable comment may be made better or worse by the entire product.
There is a scene that the titular Pope (Pius XIII, previously Lenny Belardo, portrayed by Jude Law) intones something similar to, “I am adept at preventing anyone from knowing what I am really thinking.” And he’s right. Regardless of the many many sentences he spoke that began with “I…” (“I am no one!” “I believe in formal relationships!”) no one in the audience understood him. He was at moments soft, interested in the lives of others, and at other times brutally hard, literally making old women cry. He is impossible to identify with, which I don’t feel is a good characteristic for the protagonist.
Perhaps, though, that would not be so bad, but Sorrentino seems to delight in confusing us about everyone. Certainly characters are permitted, even encouraged, to be complex, but perhaps there should also be some limit to their madness. After two hours, I am not certain if Diane Keaton’s character, Sister Mary, is motherly or only manipulating. Her words of advice for Pope Lenny near the beginning of the movie, while given in a setting that would generally be intimate or familial, were communicated in the voice of one delivering a homily to a great congregation – and I still don’t know if that was intentional or bad acting. (Forgive me, Miss Keaton, I don’t think it’s your fault.)
Likewise, for three quarters of this, Silvio Orlando’s Cardinal Voiello was portrayed as the grasping avaricious manipulator, but suddenly he is given a cliché, I mean, a handicapped son and we should now root for him. Even Scott Shepherd’s character, Cardinal Someone-or-other, who has been seen for maybe five minutes over these two hours, was made to say “it’s time I got back to my good works.” (pause) “Or bad, we’ll see.”
But the film itself is gorgeous, as can be expected from Sorrentino. The camera work is careful. The colors are fully saturated, making the work seem super-real somehow, like a fairytale. (I don’t believe that’s a contradiction.) This piece, this one-fifth of a film, seems like art, if only an incomprehensible one; art nonetheless.