Religion makes great material for horror stories. It wrestles with the same mysteries as that genre does — death, the soul, the nature of evil. It traffics in awe, which is a closely related emotion to terror. Catholicism, with its richness of symbols and incense-perfumed ritual, has been a staple of scary fiction right up through Fox’s current iteration of “The Exorcist.”

HBO’s “The Young Pope,” beginning on Sunday and showing Sundays and Mondays, is a visually sublime but textually ridiculous horror tale in which the monster is the pontiff himself.

This 10-episode series begins after the election as pope of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), a fresh-faced, little-known American. The church establishment, led by the Vatican secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), hopes he will be “a telegenic puppet” and a bridge between church conservatives and liberals. Cardinal Belardo chooses the name Pius XIII.

For the complacent cardinals, XIII proves to be an unlucky number. The new pope is, superficially, novel: He’s hooked on Cherry Coke Zero, he’s pop-culture literate, he — well, he looks like Jude Law. But his beliefs turn out to be militantly conservative, if not medieval.

The church, Pius declares, has become too tolerant and ecumenical; it must not meet people where they are but withdraw and demand, without compromise, that the faithful come to it. He’s not a bridge but a drawbridge, and he’s pulling himself up.

What’s more, he’s a tyrant. He has a priest break the seal of confession to share his cardinals’ secrets, the better to blackmail and rule by fear. (It’s not a sin if the pope does it, he assures the confessor.) Spurning the Curia’s influence, he installs Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him as an orphan, as consigliere.

And his first public address is not the warm greeting the crowd in St. Peter’s Square hopes for, but a terrifying harangue. “You have forgotten God!” he raves, declaring that his papacy will abandon the feel-good rhetoric of reaching out to one’s fellow man. Forget man! Only God matters. “You need to know that I will never be close to you,” he says. “I don’t know if you deserve me.”

The creator and director Paolo Sorrentino shoots the scene stunningly: Pius is backlit, and appears only as a furious shadow on a balcony. Mr. Sorrentino, a visual maximalist who explored Italian politics in the film “Il Divo,” seems to have set up a drama of church maneuverings and of finding God through isolation.

In certain moments, that’s what “The Young Pope” is. But it’s also pulpy and disjointed, an art-house “Vatican of Cards.”

When “The Young Pope” is bad, it’s epically so — laughable, with histrionics and mustache-twirling and bombastic set pieces. It’s weakest the closer it sticks to its narrative of church intrigue.

It wrings a sneering performance from James Cromwell as Pius’s jealous mentor, Cardinal Spencer. There’s an absurd subplot in which Ester (Ludivine Sagnier), a devout, married Madonna figure, is drafted to seduce Pius into a scandal. And Mr. Law is saddled with stiff dialogue: “I am the young pope” — he actually calls himself that — “I put no stock in consensus.”

When it’s good — well, it’s still often pretty bad, but it’s also gorgeous and appealingly weird. Mr. Sorrentino composes shots as if painting religious art, and “The Young Pope” looks awesome in both the vernacular and spiritual senses. Pius, seen from the perspective of a kneeling cardinal, appears as tall as the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro. A lush scene of Pius donning his vestments, scored to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” sounds insane if not blasphemous, but it’s sacred and profane in the best way.

There is something very current about this series, and not simply because Pius is a norm-breaking, reactionary American interloper, running against the establishment and seeking to engird his church with a big, beautiful wall (with a tiny door). “The Young Pope” echoes a larger phenomenon, of which our election was just one part: the movement toward retreat and insularity in the West, an attitude that Pius sees as a holy mandate. Brexit, meet Pontifexit.

Mr. Law, with a geographically indeterminate American accent, plays Lenny/Pius as a ball of holy anger, his eyes flashing cold lightning. An abandoned child, his natural state is isolation, his faith a kind of misanthropy. “No one loves me,” he says, “which is why I’m prepared for every kind of vileness from everyone.”

Is he a fanatic or a nonbeliever? Saint or Antichrist? Old Testament or New? He seems to be all these things variously, as well as a kind of self-styled artist. He refuses to let his image be disseminated, likening himself to Banksy, J. D. Salinger and Daft Punk, who inspire fascination by hiding their faces.

These are theoretically interesting ideas, but the net effect is that Pius is a black box whose behavior changes to fit the needs of a given scene. For all its arresting images and symbols, “The Young Pope” is still a serial driven by story, and the narrative and character motivations are slapdash and underdeveloped. Like Frank Underwood in “House of Cards,” Pius also suffers from a lack of worthy, competent antagonists as he steamrollers his opposition.

If you’re going to appreciate “The Young Pope,” it will probably be on the nonliteral level of spectacle. Early in the season, the Australian government gifts a kangaroo (just go with it) to the Vatican, and Pius orders it released into the papal gardens. Later, he comes upon the beast on a nighttime walk, and these two odd creatures stare each other down.

It’s in the feeling that this kind of surreal moment induces — where you’re caught between wonder and the urge to hoot with laughter — that “The Young Pope” may come closest to God.

This article was sourced from http://newsjeremycorbyn.com