The New Pope
The New Pope giveth, and The New Pope taketh away. Last week, Paolo Sorrentino’s audacious and impeccably crafted series revived Lenny Belardo, the erstwhile Pope Pius XIII, from his coma — or resurrected him from the dead, as some of his more fervent believers put it. This week, the show brings us the death of a minor but memorable character, Girolamo, the developmentally disabled young friend of the Vatican’s chief schemer, Cardinal Voiello. It says something about the skill involved in making this show that Girolamo’s death, and the funeral service held for him, are as impactful and moving as the return of one of the series’ previous protagonists. It says something about the show’s fundamental humaneness, too — how beneath all the attention-getting imagery and borderline-blasphemous takes on sex and the Church, this is a show that believes in the power of love.
I don’t know about you, but I could use that right about now. Because on The New Pope, love isn’t a Hallmark-card concept; if it were, it would be snuffed out by the much more robust and complex latticework of faith, guilt, doubt, and desire animating all the characters. On this show, love is a dangerous thing; according to Pope John Paul III, it might be the most dangerous thing, since “distortions of love” are the root cause of all the world’s problems. Doesn’t it follow, then, that undistorted love could be the solution?
That’s how it felt when Voiello walked arm in arm with Franco (Giancarlo Fares, doing absolutely dynamite work in the role), Girolamo’s other caretaker, into St. Peter’s Basilica for the young man’s funeral mass. Franco had previously expressed doubts about Voiello’s plans for the service; how could they invite friends to attend when Girolamo had none except Voiello and himself? The look on his face as he sees the place jam-packed with people — from dozens of young people to a full contingent of cardinals to the pope himself — is one of mingled shock, relief, gratitude, and bittersweet joy. I couldn’t look at him without crying.
Nor could I make it through the opening lines of Voiello’s eulogy for his young friend. “‘Love your neighbor as yourself,’ Jesus says. I have only one neighbor: you, Girolamo.” Beneath the weight of that statement — beneath Voiello’s belief that his friend embodied the world’s suffering and the world’s love — I crumpled like a wadded-up tissue.
I didn’t fare much better when an emotionally overwhelmed Pius XIII reunited with his old friend Sister Suree, who brought him his old papal vestments. He seemed so moved by her presence, so grateful for the gift she brought him. Am I a sap for focusing on this rather than, say, the closing image of Pius standing bare-ass naked in an empty swimming pool, staring at those same garments? Because believe you me, Jude Law’s ass is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to this episode’s thrills, chills, swerves, and surprises. You could excise the entire Girolamo plot and still have an enormously rich, enormously entertaining episode of television.
You could focus, for example, on John Paul III himself. Retreating from his responsibilities to the Vatican’s ski chalet (!), he is courted for a return to his duties by Sofia Dubois, for whom he has obvious and painful romantic feelings, which appear to be returned. But both parties are too steeped in the Church’s symbolism of sacrifice and self-denial to actually go through with anything. They settle for highly eroticized gestures instead: Sofia applying mascara to JPIII’s eyelashes to make him feel more like he felt in his family home, where he could play the dandy without sanction; JPIII asking to feel her breath on the corner of his mouth one more time, after which he vows to keep her at a distance forever. This stuff was so hot I nearly caught fire.
Then there are the schemes of the resurgent Voiello, concocted in tandem with a gaggle of stealthy operatives. With the help of Bauer, the Vatican’s one-man CIA, and Essence, the one-eyed priest whose specialty seems to be simply being creepy on cue, Voiello destroys the “terrible triad”— who’ve been running the show by blackmailing JPIII in his absence — threatening to expose their orgies with an underage girl unless they all resign from their respective posts.
What’s more, Voiello unseats his replacement, Cardinal Assente, by revealing that Assente’s lover, Don Cavallo, was working for him all along and by persuading the Vatican’s cloistered nuns to record a conversation in which Assente expresses his loathing of children and orphans. “You’re a bad person, Voiello,” says Assente, who as played by Maurizio Lombardi appears to be constructed entirely of right angles. “No,” Voiello corrects him, “I am an appalling person.” “But useful,” Cavallo chimes in.
Is there more? Boy, is there ever. So much it’s hard to know where to begin! How about Sofia leaking photos of JPIII’s teenage punk phase to the press, banking on the idea that revealing the pope to be both tender and a little silly will endear him to a world full of people who’ve suffered their fair share of similar embarrassments. (“Embarrassment leads not to abandonment, but unity.”) How about our man Lenny Belardo dressed as a common priest, reacting almost violently to a distraught child’s letter to him while he was in a coma, as read by Cardinal Gutiérrez, because he can’t abide the suffering of children. How about the doctor who presided over Lenny while he was comatose, so mobbed by paparazzi that the strobe effect of their camera flashes is nearly blinding.
How about the revelation that JPIII’s twin brother died after a skiing accident, in part because the pope was so strung out on heroin that he couldn’t do anything to save him. How about the look on actor Silvio Orlando’s face when Bauer informs him that Pius XIII has woken up, the look of a man who’s used to knowing everything worth knowing suddenly confronted with an unknown. How about Sir John Brannox’s white winter wardrobe. How about Essence scaring the refugee Faisal into admitting his role in the bombing of St. Peter’s without so much as a word. How about Voiello discovering Girolamo’s death from the tears streaming down the face of Don Mimmo, his dementia-stricken companion.
I could go on, and on, and on. It’s that rich a show. It’s a show rich enough to actually merit the comparison to Twin Peaks that all “weird” shows get—it’s that accomplished and sophisticated, that bold, that sexy, that sad. And for a brief moment in this shitty world, it transported me with its belief in the power of love to make the world less shitty. For me, it turned “love thy neighbor as thyself” from a dimly remembered concept from Catholic school into an imperative, into a beacon of hope that such love is still possible. I don’t even know what to say about a TV show that can pull that off. Thank you, I suppose?