Jude Law as the first American Pope? Diane Keaton as the faithful nun who looks after him? It strains the credulity more than a bit. But maverick Italian Paolo Sorrentino is the director, so we must always expect the unexpected. The Young Pope, a ten-part television series, of which the first two parts were shown out of competition at the Venice Festival, seems far from a masterpiece so far. But despite its unorthodox casting, at least it isn't the disaster some expected. This new Pope, selected largely because the Vatican thinks it can almost certainly control him, has colourful dreams of both despair and hope, but solidly ploughs through his self-imposed task of reforming those who are determined to keep things as they are. This is clearly only the start of a long TV journey, so we don't know whether he wins out or not. But both Law and Keaton give performances which justify the casting, at least since the object of the exercise is to attract as many watchers as possible to stay the course by using stars.
Sorrentino and his regular cameramen could make anything look beautiful and do so again here. What's more the director of the Oscar-winning The Great Beauty clearly hasn't lost his touch as a man with radical ideas. His Catholic Church is conspiratorial and conservative minded, and his new Pope, beginning his battles against them despite being hardly a revolutionary himself, clearly has a hard battle ahead. If there is a problem with the first two episodes it lies in a screenplay which is serviceable but less than inspired. You always feel that The Young Pope is covering its options carefully and that Sorrentino, in accepting the job knew precisely how far he could go without offending too many. Only in the dream sequences does he pull out the virtuosity we know he possesses. Otherwise, you wouldn't be sure who has directed the film, except that it certainly couldn't be any old Hollywood hack.
We all know Mel Gibson, recently dubbed the richest actor in America, can direct as well. The Passion of Christ, whatever you thought of it, proved that. And so does Hacksaw Ridge, his latest essay in film-making after a gap of over a decade. This the true story of the conscientious objector who volunteered for the US Army Medical Corps at the start of the Second World War and was almost court-martialled for refusing either to carry or fire a weapon of any sort. In the end, he became a war hero for saving dozens of badly wounded men during the battle of Hacksaw Ridge, where the infantry has to scale the ridge and face a hail of Japanese bullets when they reached the top. Carnage on a giant scale followed and our heros bravery and his determination to go back into the battle area to rescue just one more made that phrase famous for years afterwards.
Gibson tells a fairly conventional story about the young man and secures good performances not only from Andrew Garfield as Desmond Doss but the whole cast, which includes Vince Vaughn, Hugo Weaving and Sam Worthington. Above all, the extended final battle scenes are horrendously naturalistic, which puts a distinction on the film it might otherwise not have had. The horror of war, at least for the boots on the ground, has seldom been more apparent. You leave the theatre more than a trifle stunned.
But the problem is that Gibson's central idea that religious faith triumphs over almost everything also applies to the so-called Islamic State and most other wasteful and murderous religious wars. Doss was a hero who just happened to be on the right side.
The best film at the festival so far, or at least in the star-studded competition, was undoubtedly Tom Ford's Nocturnal Animals, in which the director of A Simple Man proved he is potentially one of the finest in America. In the film, Jake Gyllenhaal's clean living middle-class man goes after the goons who rape and kill his wife and daughter, aided by Michael Shannon's chain smoking and almost impossibly cynical detective. But this isn't reality but the plot of a book divorcee Amy Adams is sent by her novelist ex-husband.
Not only is it extremely violent but the characters in it have more than a passing resemblance to people she knows, including herself. Totally different from A Single Man, the film bows to Blue Velvet as much as any other movie, with bloody fiction bleeding into uncomfortable reality. It is elegant, acted with real power and has a strong feeling for its an ordinary man faced with circumstances Liam Neeson might attempt to circumnavigate.
Maybe La La Land will attract the jury's attention ahead of Ford's film, but it must be a candidate for the Golden Lion with British director Sam Mendes, who knows something about such American obsessions, in the chair.