I don't even believe in God – so why do I care what happens in The Young Pope?

The Young Pope stars Jude Law as a pious yet sensuous pontiff. Even so, I didn't expect it to matter to me whether or not the character believes.

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman's Morning Call email.

In The Young Pope – made largely in Europe, sold around the world and broadcast here on Sky Atlantic (Thursdays, 9pm) – the chiselled dude in question is not even remotely a moderniser. It’s 2016 or thereabouts and his elevation has come as a surprise (is it the result of skulduggery or a miracle?) even to the cardinals who elected him. Yet contrary to the expectations raised by his relatively tight, fortysomething bum and the Cherry Coke Zero with which he begins each day, this pontiff does not believe that priests should be free to marry or nuns permitted to take Mass; liberation theology is just so much muck on the soles of his red leather slippers.

Such traditionalism might once have flagged a dirty secret – a woman on the side, perhaps, or even a man – but Pius XIII (Jude Law) stinks of cigarette smoke, not hypocrisy (his cigarettes are kept in a velvet pouch, with an ingenious ashtray that resembles a pocket watch). Oh, but he is bloodless. “My only sin is that my conscience does not accuse me of anything,” he says in the confessional, not even bothering to whisper.

What autocratic piety, and how it speaks to our strange and conservative times – the age of Isis, Donald Trump and Narendra Modi – though here it comes with a subversively ambiguous sex appeal. One minute, the Vatican’s female head of marketing is trembling excitedly at the Holy Father’s financially suicidal pronouncement that his image will not appear on any merchandise. The next, we watch as he awaits the arrival of a helicopter, his zucchetto held in place by a wide-brimmed hat so camp that it might have come straight from the wardrobe of Quentin Crisp.

When he rails at the crowds gathered in St Peter’s Square, accusing them in his first homily of having moved too far from God, it’s at once uncomfortable and thrilling. Even as you want to run away, you long to kiss his ring. What to make of all this? In liberal circles, as Tony Blair discovered, Catholicism is deemed beyond the pale. Yet here it is, disguised as an Armani ad, its internal debates played out wittily and compellingly by one fine actor after another.

My feelings about it are strong. The work of the Oscar-winning director Paolo Sorrentino (The Great Beauty), it couldn’t be more to my taste if I’d written it myself. Theatrically grand to the point of being overblown, it is also clever, witty, mysterious, provocative, surreal and occasionally silly. It looks beautiful, it sounds beautiful, and nothing in it is wholly expected, from the sight of Diane Keaton in a wimple (she plays Sister Mary, the nun who raised the orphan pope and has rushed to Rome to be by his side) to the singular logistics of the Apostolic Palace (beneath Pius’s desk is a green button, there to be pressed whenever he’s had enough of a visitor, at which point a novice rushes in and announces that it’s time for his “snack”). In episode two (aired 27 October), a kangaroo appears, as mesmerised by the Holy Father as any animal ever was by St Francis, and we catch sight of Keaton in her nightwear: a slogan T-shirt that pokes saucy fun at her marriage to God.

Law, putting in his best performance since he starred as Dickie Greenleaf in The Talented Mr Ripley, is magnificent: charming, cruel, unknowable, mannequin-like in his watered-silk vestments. His sheer poise! He uses it like a sacrament. To my surprise, I find that the question of whether or not Pius believes in God – impossible to tell, so far, though he is certainly having trouble hearing Him – matters to me (I’m surprised because I don’t believe in Him).

Law, however, is pretty close to being upstaged by the Italian actor Silvio Orlando, who plays Cardinal Voiello, the Vatican’s shifty, oleaginous and thoroughly institutionalised secretary of state. Voiello’s only confessed sin so far involves his lustful obsession with the tiny but voluptuous statue the Venus of Willendorf – but he may soon have to commit all manner of holy misdeeds if he is to save the Church from what he regards as Pius’s remorseless and ­brutal literalism. Unless, that is, its salvation should lie in such intransigence. And if Sorrentino intends to be truly subversive, this is the daring direction in which he will go. 

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article appears in the 27 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, American Rage