The thrill of the Sopranos comes to the Vatican

Cold and controlled, a kind of monster: Jude Law as Pius XIII in HBO’s The Young Pope

The importance of location to great fiction has been emphasised again and again throughout the current golden age of television. HBO’s run of seminal shows prove the rule. Whether it’s mobster New Jersey in The Sopranos or The West Wing’s corridors of power, a sound choice of location provides a platform from which complex and compelling human dramas can play out.

The struggle to find similar worlds to base new series on must be one that keeps HBO executives wide-awake at night. It’s a wonder, then, that it’s taken so long for them to get round to making a programme based in the Vatican. The behind the scenes political machinations at play in the White House, both the real and televisual one, surely have nothing on the infighting and intrigue that has gone on for centuries in the heart of the Church.

The phenomenal success of The Da Vinci Code should have pointed the way. Dan Brown’s idiotic book came out in 2003, but it’s taken until now for HBO, or any other television network, to make the most of the Vatican’s dramatic potential: The Young Pope, starring Jude Law as a relatively youthful, newly elected American pontiff, starts on Sky Atlantic later this month.

As the critic Mark Lawson pointed out recently in The Guardian, papal fiction is nothing new, but since The Da Vinci Code there has been an upsurge in art inspired by the Vatican and the Church at large. Brown’s novel must have had something to do with it, but I suspect also that the election of Pope Francis, and his subsequent media-friendly approach, has reminded artists – and perhaps more importantly, producers – of the Church’s potential as a dramatic world.

Robert Harris’s new novel takes the election of a pope as the structure for a thriller, and in 2011 Italian filmmaker Nanni Moretti released We Have a Pope, about a reluctant cardinal elected as Holy Father. With its mix of wry comedy and melancholic drama, that film is of a piece with the rest of Moretti’s oeuvre, just as The Young Pope is exactly the kind of operatic spectacle you’d expect from Moretti’s compatriot and peer Paolo Sorrentino, who has directed and co-written the 10-part series.

Sorrentino’s love of the spectacular is most obvious in his Oscar-winner, The Great Beauty, a Felliniesque love letter to Rome. No surprise then that he should now be drawn to the grand environs of the Vatican, and he makes the most of the visual potential of his location with sweeping shots of St Peter’s Square and Michelangelo’s Pietà.

The Vatican also offers Sorrentino the chance to pick away at his perennial theme: the struggle of the solitary male. Time and again, his films tell the story of a man alone, trying to plot his way through a troubled world. From the Mafia bagman hiding out in a Swiss hotel in The Consequences of Love to Italian prime minister Giulio Andreotti desperately trying to shore up his power base in Il Divo, there is always a very human drama amid the spectacle.

And so The Young Pope, the story of a youthful, troubled man thrust into the position of pontiff, is a good fit for Sorrentino. I caught the opening two episodes at a London press screening recently. Some Catholics may find elements of the show too edgy, but I was gripped by what I watched.

The plot focuses on Lenny Belardo, the newly elected Pope Pius XIII. His hair is greying and perfectly kempt. He smokes incessantly, creating a new in-house rule that the pope is allowed to puff away, replacing John Paul II’s smoking ban.

This new, youthful pope is in the job because the other cardinals hope to manipulate him, particularly the superficially cheerful Secretary of State. But Lenny makes it clear early on that he will be his own man. He brings in the nun who raised him, played by Diane Keaton, to be his primary aide and proves himself to be a fearsome and Machiavellian figure.

Law does a good job of meeting the standards set by Sorrentino’s usual leading man, Toni Servillo. His Pope Pius is cold and controlled, a kind of monster. But the seriousness of the character, and the ongoing Vatican power struggle, is cleverly undercut by an absurd comic strand that underscores the drama. The Pope’s thirst for Cherry Coke Zero is a running joke, as is a cardinal’s unhealthy interest in statues. At one point, a kangaroo is set free in the Vatican Gardens.

Sorrentino might be a director beloved of the art house, but thanks to HBO’s money and independence, he hasn’t had to compromise his vision in his move to the small screen.

In fact, television proves to be a perfect medium for his mix of arresting images and intense, mordantly funny storytelling. His choice of location is inspired, too. Sorrentino is right at home in Vatican City.

The Young Pope starts on Sky Atlantic on October 27