Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope is not your father’s pontiff. Lenny Belardo aka Pius XIII, as played by Jude Law in the series, is the first American Holy Father, who is elected to the post over his mentor, Cardinal Spencer (James Cromwell), and from day one begins to shake things up inside the Vatican.

The first two episodes of the Sky, HBO and Canal Plus series that screened back-to-back this morning at the Venice Film Festival were very well-received in the Sala Grande and reviews have been glowing (The Telegraph suggests we might refer to it as House Of Cardinals). A press conference this afternoon was the most jam-packed I’ve seen since the Lido got buzzing last Wednesday. Tickets for the red carpet tonight sold out within an hour in this country that is Holy See headquarters.

Paolo Sorrentino The Young Pope
Photo by Gianni Fiorito

The series follows Law’s Lenny/Pius as he settles into the Vatican. He is at once ruthless, cunning, vulnerable, insecure, modern, old-fashioned — and charming. It’s clear from the get-go, and as he says in the trailer (here), that he’s a contradiction.

As Law tells it, Lenny and Pius are two personas. “Paolo reminded me constantly that the story was about a man who just happens to be the pope… It’s almost as if the character of Pope Pius XIII is a role Lenny was playing to work out his own dilemmas.”

With The Young Pope, Oscar-winner Sorrentino (The Great Beauty) makes his first foray into television. The lush miniseries that he directs with his signature style and which he also co-wrote, is gorgeous to look at and features great turns from the ensemble — Law is getting strong notices. It’s also got a fair share of quirky elements including a classic Antonioni reference, a pair of Havaianas flip-flops, football playing nuns — and a kangaroo. And, there’s a lot of smoking.

The proceedings kick off with a disturbing opening shot of a mound of what appear to be sleeping infants as Pius crawls out from under them in full regalia and into Venice’s Piazza San Marco. While we’re clearly in a dream state here, the first several wordless minutes that follow do make you wonder whether they’re real or imagined.

One of Pius’ first orders of business is to bring Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the nun who raised him, to Vatican City. That puts some noses out of joint among the College of Cardinals, particularly a fantastic Silvio Orlando as Cardinal Voiello. Orlando, who speaks Italian and English in some of the episodes’ standout moments, told reporters this afternoon that he would like to thank “the half a dozen dialogue coaches that I have exterminated in the course of this experience.” (He may need to revive one come next year as this is an awards-caliber performance with the character likely to be a key figure throughout the run.)

Pius befriends some of the Vatican priests and alienates others. In one instance, he enlists the resident confessor to report back to him with the sins confided to him.

Sorrentino was asked if he’d heard the Church’s thoughts on the series. “The Vatican probably wouldn’t mind, if they are patient and watch to the end to see that we are simply investigating with honesty the contradictions and fascinating aspects. There’s no prejudice.”

Moving to television, he said, was “not traumatic but not easy either. It’s very difficult but exciting. When you work with such a wide timespan you have the possibility to delve into greater depth and can afford digressions that might get censored in cinema. I had to take into account how the different parts of the story hold together much more than you have to do when you make an ordinary film. I wanted to focus on the strength of the narrative. You don’t have moments of high synthesis like in film, so that’s what I transferred from cinema to this series. It’s a long movie.”

Also starring are Scott Shepherd as Lenny’s boyhood friend who is now Cardinal Dussolier; Cécile de France as the head of marketing for the Vatican; Javier Cámara; Ludivine Sagnier; and Toni Bertorelli.

The 10-part series begins airing via Sky in its European markets on October 21, with HBO set to debut it in the U.S. in early 2017. The Young Pope is produced by Wildside and co-produced by Haut et Court TV and Mediapro.