The New Pope is not to be confused with The Two Popes, the buddy comedy about Francis and Benedict that Netflix released before Christmas (and which, inexplicably, many people liked). The New Pope is the second series of the HBO show that previously went by the name of The Young Pope – and it returned to Sky Atlantic on Sunday.
If you’re a touch bewildered, then let me explain. The Young Pope, directed and co-written by the Italian film-maker Paolo Sorrentino, was released in 2016. Jude Law played Lenny Belardo, the pontiff of the title, an ultra-conservative American who came from obscurity to claim the papacy and shake up the Vatican as Pius XIII.
That series ended with Pius in a coma, having collapsed in front of the faithful in St Peter’s Square – and, as The New Pope begins, the prognosis has worsened both for him and the Church. Problems are everywhere: Islamic terrorists are threatening Rome, the abuse crisis rumbles on and an idolatrous cult has sprung up around the stricken Pius, who appears to be in a vegetative state following a number of failed attempts to cure him.
With the pope unable to lead, Secretary of State Cardinal Angelo Voiello is a man under pressure to find a way out of the crisis. As ever, he has a plan: a conclave and a new pope to restore order – and Voiello optimistically puts himself forward as the right man for the job.
As the basic plot description above makes clear, this is a series about Vatican politics, with all the positioning, posturing and backstabbing that comes with it. The ending of episode one ups this ante by offering up what might just amount to a Mafia-style hit.
But due to Sorrentino’s sensibility, it’s far weirder than a straightforward drama. His approach to film-making is maximalist. He stuffs his movies with pulsing soundtracks and stylised set-pieces, odd characters and non-linear narratives. He doesn’t always get it right and often splits opinion, but when he does succeed, it works brilliantly. The Great Beauty, his best-loved film, is visually dazzling and narratively fragmented, while his breakthrough film, The Consequences of Love, is more understated, an original and compulsive take on the gangster flick.
For me, The Young Pope, and what I’ve seen of The New Pope (the first two episodes), contain the best of these two films. We get a succession of artfully composed, intensely cinematic images of the kind not usually seen on television. A neon cross hums and shines above Pius’s sickbed. A group of nuns dance in front of an altar as a techno beat thuds away in the background.
Sexual tension is never far from the surface and there are numerous provocative moments; and humour (both dark and slapstick) regularly undercuts the tension.
After giving his big speech to his loyal cardinals, bird droppings land on Voiello’s pristine cassock. Later, we meet his rival for the papacy, Cardinal Hernandez. The men are each other’s doppelgängers, including the oversized specs but minus the distinctive mole on Voiello’s cheek.
For some this heady mix will be too much, but for me Sorrentino just about keeps control, and what emerges is an unworldly, fantastical and irreverent vision of the Vatican, which also maintains a deeply serious exploration of the plight that the Church and its priests face today.
As the title and the pre-publicity has made clear, there is a new pope in town this time around – and the man who would be pontiff is played by John Malkovich. He is kept away from the screen in episode one, by the end of which it is clear that Voiello won’t achieve his ambition of becoming pope himself.
In episode two, Voiello and a small band of loyalists head to England to meet Malkovich’s Sir John Brannox, an eyeliner-wearing English cardinal, who is famous for his love of Cardinal Newman, converting Anglicans to Catholicism and his belief in a moderate approach to faith. He is also prone to bouts of grim depression. As Pius was haunted by his family history in the previous series, so it seems that Brannox will be haunted by his in this one.
Malkovich is clearly having a great time, swanning around in elegant suits and making pronouncements in a bizarre English accent. Whether or not you choose to believe in this rather ludicrous aristocrat will probably determine whether you choose to stick with the series over the course of the entire nine episodes. I’m looking forward to seeing Brannox’s arrival in Rome and the inevitable head-to-head with Pius, once the latter wakes from his coma (HBO hasn’t paid Jude Law just to lie in bed and appear in the odd vision for an entire series, I’m sure).
Watching Law versus Malkovich should be good fun, and one hopes that Voiello will not take a step back either. He is brilliantly played by Silvio Orlando: inscrutable, devious and strangely loveable. He’s the dark heart of this eccentric series.