With his wild hair and anti-authoritarian view of the world, Italian writer-director Paolo Sorrentino is more punk rock than Catholic. In his evocative and visual stylish way, he creates vastly unusual portraits of powerful men, or powerful men in decline, and often casts Hollywood stars to play them. He had Sean Penn channel one of his teenage idols, The Cure’s Robert Smith, in his English-language debut, This Must Be the Place, Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel shared a gorgeous swimming pool, seemingly naked and ogling at a gorgeous woman in Youth, while Jude Law’s celibate conservative Pope Pius XIII is poised and visually straightjacketed by his elaborate garb in Sorrentino’s first television series The Young Pope. HBO has a second season in the works.
When filming in Italian of course the writer-director reserves his studies of power for Tony Servillo, who portrayed corrupt former Italian Prime Minister Giulio Andreotti in Il Divo, and the pair are set for a similar study of Silvio Berlusconi, about whom Sorrentino has long been outspoken. For The Great Beauty, their study of an ageing Roman socialite, Sorrentino won the foreign Oscar, while Servillo took out the best actor European Film Award, which he also won for Il Divo.
HB: How was it to make your first television series?
PS: It gave me a lot of satisfaction because I didn't only focus on the Pope, I could follow another character for some time. That's something you inevitably don't have when you make a film, because you have one fifth of the time at your disposal. In my feature films I was less focused on the narration, which I had to focus on more here and I had fun exploring that.
HB: Were you aiming to be critical of the Catholic Church?
PS: That was not my priority. My interest was in breaking the taboos in the portrayal of priests and nuns, in the representation of the clergy in general, because they are always painted as saints or scoundrels. I wanted to paint them for that they are – human beings, strange human beings who have to relate with God, this invisible entity, as well as having a normal life.
"I wanted to paint them [the Clergy] for that they are – human beings, strange human beings who have to relate with God, this invisible entity, as well as having a normal life."
HB: They give up their normal lives so that makes them weird.
PS: It’s true, they don't live normal lives, but we cinema people don't either. They escape reality because they are scared of it and they embrace the Church. We escape reality because we didn't like it, and we embrace filmmaking.
HB: You have not included many topical issues like homosexuality, contraception and abortion.
PS: It’s best to avoid them because they can become outdated very soon. I treated paedophilia in one episode, though this Pope is very quick to change his mind from one day to the next.
HB: Were you attracted to the theatricality of the Catholic Church?
PS: Yes indeed. It’s very close to my idea of mise-en-scène (artistic design). The ritual, the theatrical aspect of the Catholic Church is something that I like very much.
HB: The character is a fascinating study of power.
PS: I’m fascinated by psychology. Often if there is a greed for power, what is underneath is a lack of self-confidence and identity problems, because otherwise you cannot explain this mania for controlling everything and for exerting your power over other human beings. It's a psychological schizophrenic attitude that I think is very interesting to explore. If you have power, you are obliged to be very lonely and that's another condition that I’m interested in exploring.
HB: Why did you want an American Pope?
PS: Because there’s never been one and because an American Pope would be unfamiliar to the Italians. It allowed me to explain to the viewers about the Vatican mechanism of managing the whole thing as it’s explained to the main character. Of course, being a costly programme, I wanted it to be a co-production with English-language partners. It also makes sense, as the Catholic Church in the US is quite conservative and that was useful.
HB: Why did you cast Jude Law (who after all is British)?
PS: Jude’s perfect. He had all the features needed for the character. He also had all the qualities I needed of him as a human being considering I was going to live with him for seven months!
HB: Why did you cast Diane Keaton as Sister Mary? (She raised Lenny Belardo, the very young Pope-to-be in an orphanage and he ultimately appoints her as his adviser in Rome.)
PS: Diane Keaton is a great actress and possibly in my view she made too many comedies. I wanted to see her in a more dramatic role.
HB: You especially wanted to see her in a nun’s habit?
HB: Did you try to shoot in the Vatican?
PS: Yes (Laughs). I was denied everything. (The series was filmed at Cinecittà Studios outside of Rome.)
HB: Living in Italy, do you think that the Vatican is part of the Italian mentality more than in other countries?
PS: I honestly don't know. I’m a non-believer so I don't really listen to what the Vatican says, and I have a hard time believing that true Catholics take for gold everything that comes out of the Holy siege. I think that since we are Italian and we are born in this territory where the Vatican is, we probably don’t even notice any more.
HB: Why didn’t you include Opus Dei?
PS: Despite the fact that 10 hours seems a lot of time, the Catholic Church is such a vast issue that we had to leave it out. It will probably be in the second season.