The New Pope
Have you heard the Good News? We have no longer forgotten to masturbate!
Yes, Lenny Belardo, the erstwhile Pope Pius XIII, must be spinning in his non-grave: Before the opening credits of The New Pope, Paolo Sorrentino’s daring new sequel to his 2017 masterpiece The Young Pope, even roll, a nun jerks off after giving Belardo’s comatose body a sponge bath. This kind of sexual excess was literally the stuff of Lenny’s nightmares, with that famous line about self-love popping up in an anxiety dream prior to his first address to the faithful. After the cliffhanger heart attack at the end of last season that we learn left him comatose, who will guide his flock now?
That’s the subject of the first episode of The New Pope, and the answer is not who you think it is. To wit, it’s not Sir John Brannox, the English prelate played by John Malkovich. Before his ascension, there’s papal-political hardball to be played among the College of Cardinals whose responsibility it is to select Pius XIII’s successor, and the game goes horribly awry.
From a certain point of view, that is. To many, this episode’s new pontiff, Francis II (a giddy Marcello Romolo), is a dream, a vision of what the Catholic Church could be. Aligning himself with the poor Franciscan monks — who follow him around, bully the cardinals, and conduct daring late-night raids on the Vatican’s computers like his own personal goon squad — the new pope opens the Vatican to the refugees flocking to Southern Europe’s shores and begins selling off the Holy See’s valuables to donate the money to charity.
It’s the last thing that the Vatican’s Machiavellian secretary of state, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), wanted when he helped engineer Francis II’s election. Since his archrival and spitting image Cardinal Hernandez (also Silvio Orlando, hilariously) is on the verge of mustering the necessary votes to assume power, Voiello stealthily aligns his supporters behind a little-known cardinal named Tommaso Viglietti as a warm body to occupy the Pope’s chair while he runs things behind the scenes.
At first, the plan seems to work almost too well. Viglietti, who previously served as the Vatican’s chief confessor (and, therefore, a valuable intelligence asset in Pius XIII’s service), is dumbfounded by his selection, which is filmed in a bizarre, concave fashion to heighten the sense of confusion. Viglietti needs to down blood-pressure pills almost constantly just to muster the strength to deliver his first address.
But when a dove swoops down and steals the paper on which his speech (written by Voiello and his advisers) is printed, Viglietti seems to take it as divine intervention. And hey, it wouldn’t be the first time a bird helped decide the fate of the Church in this episode: Voiello’s in the middle of giving a seemingly successful pitch for his own papacy to his brethren when an unseen bird takes a shit on him.
The bird thing also serves as a pretty strong indicator of creator–co-writer–director Sorrentino’s light touch when dealing with very heavy issues. From the opening credits, which depict a group of nuns having an after-hours dance party in front of a glowing neon cross, to the double casting of Orlando as two separate cardinals (Viglietti makes jokes about how alike they look prior to his election), to the continued presence of Jude Law as the perpetually scantily clad Pius XIII, The New Pope maintains its predecessor series’ enthusiasm for the absurd and surreal. Those two qualities aren’t nearly as far apart as critics can make them out to be; see the combination of splendor and ridiculousness that is The Young Pope’s “Sexy and I Know It” montage for clarification.
That doesn’t mean that the show can’t get serious. On the contrary, the high jinks mask a very frank and impassioned reckoning with the Church’s sins. Nowhere is this more evident than in a striking sequence that depicts several individual cardinals in prayer during the selection process, as voice-overs elucidate what they’re looking for in a leader. A gay cardinal wants acceptance for homosexuality. A secretly married cardinal wants priests to be allowed to marry so his wife need no longer live in the shadows. A cardinal who never knew his father wants a surrogate. Another wants a pope with no mercy — except toward the poor. A cardinal who molested children wants to be forgiven. Another cardinal who molested children wants to be damned to hell. So yeah, it gets serious.
Nor does Francis II’s spiritual and financial generosity preclude some power plays of his own. In addition to forcing the whole Church to adhere to the Franciscan vow of poverty, the new pope also plans to institute a near-total purge of sexuality among the priesthood, including the installation of cameras in the bathroom to rule out masturbation. He’s also not above using the inside information he gleaned while serving as the cardinals’ confessor against them now that he has the top job. And of course there are those Franciscan thugs to worry about; their uniform youth makes for a stark contrast with the elderly cardinals, and implies, without anyone needing to say it, that things could actually get ugly if it came to a fight.
Which, after Francis II fires Voiello from his job as secretary of state and announces his intention to defrock him completely, is not outside the realm of possibility. Indeed, it’s implied that Voiello escalates his fight with the pope to the highest possible level, hiring the sinister ambassador and fixer named Bauer (Mark Ivanir) to engineer a fatal heart attack for the new pontiff. It’s at that precise moment that ol’ Lenny Belardo, lying on a hospital bed elsewhere in the Vatican, moves a finger for the first time. The Lord merks in mysterious ways.
And so, as the closing credits roll over the “All Along the Watchtower” remix that opened each new episode of The Young Pope, we’re left with a shot of Sir John Brannox, cloaked in shadow. He’s the compromise candidate that Voiello and Hernandez settle upon, despite Voiello’s fear that he’s too big of a snob for the job. Of course, Voiello is 0 for 2 in picking new popes that will play by his rules, so he’s probably right to be afraid.
I, on the other hand, greet The New Pope with a spring in my step and a song in my heart. It’s hard to remember, after three years that felt more like three decades, what a breath of fresh air The Young Pope was: written, filmed, and edited with an assumption that its audience is intelligent, moral, and eager for a challenge to both. It was one of the best television shows of the past decade, and so far, there’s every indication that The New Pope will be one of the best television shows of the next.