Thursday, July 23, 2020

Belated thoughts on "The New Pope."

For a while, I have been meaning to write something about The New Pope, a nine-episode series created and directed by Paolo Sorrentino that aired earlier this year on Sky Atlantic, Canal+, and HBO. The New Pope is a sequel to Sorrentino's 2016 series The Young Pope, which I wrote about here. The story of brash, conservative American cardinal Lenny Belardo (Jude Law), elected to the papacy as Pius XIII, The Young Pope was interpreted by reviewers of various stripes as a commentary on contemporary ecclesial politics. This interpretation has its limits; as I argued in my essay on the series, The Young Pope is best read not through political or theological lenses but instead as an extended rumination on the same themes of loneliness, solitude, and human connection that recur throughout Sorrentino's oeuvre. The New Pope proposes further variations on those themes while also offering answers to viewers of the first series who wondered 'what happens next' after the open-ended final episode of The Young Pope.

In linear terms, The New Pope picks up where The Young Pope left off. In the final scene of the earlier series, Pope Pius XIII had dramatically collapsed and lost consciousness while giving a stirring public address in Venice. The new series begins nine months later, with the pope still comatose and his secretary of state Cardinal Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando) pondering the way forward. Since all efforts to revive Pius XIII have failed, the cardinals declare the papacy vacant and elect the apparently meek and malleable Cardinal Tommaso Viglietti (Marcello Romolo) as pope. Taking the name of Pope Francis II, Viglietti proves to be anything but meek: as iron-willed as he is committed to evangelical poverty, Viglietti takes personal control of all of the Vatican's bank accounts, threatens to defrock Voiello and other curial cardinals, and invites hordes of refugees to take up residence in the Vatican. Then, both unexpectedly and suddenly, Pope Francis II dies of an apparent heart attack, creating yet another papal vacancy as Pius XIII continues to sleep in a hospital bed under the watchful eye of a nursing sister and an attending physician.

Faced with the continued incapacity of Pius XIII and the sudden death of Francis II, Cardinal Voiello seeks a new pope who can restore a sense of stability and help the Church to regain its bearings. His choice falls upon an unusual candidate, Cardinal John Brannox (John Malkovich), a British aristocrat who gained widespread notoriety as the author of a popular spiritual treatise (The Middle Way) and reached high office in the Church before retiring, while still relatively young, to live in seclusion on his family's rural estate. With the help of a key aide, Vatican press secretary Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France), Voiello convinces a reluctant Brannox to come to Rome for the next conclave and to accept election as Pope John Paul III.

Far from providing a return to stability, the pontificate of Pope John Paul III is rocked by unforeseen turmoil. Wounded by a lack of parental love and paralyzed by what he describes as the "unbearable grief" of the loss of his twin brother Adam, who died forty years earlier, the new pope is indecisive and easily manipulated by Voiello's archenemy Cardinal Spalletta (Massimo Ghini). Spalletta persuades Brannox to force Voiello's resignation as secretary of state and to place control of the Vatican's finances in the hands of banker Tomas Altbruck (Tomas Arana), Sofia Dubois's husband and member of a corrupt circle that includes Spalletta as well as the sinister Italian finance minister Guicciardini (Claudio Bigagli). Following a series of threatening broadcasts by 'the Caliph,' the leader of what appears to be Daesh, the Church is shaken by terrorist attacks at Lourdes and within St. Peter's Basilica itself. Finally, in the midst of chaos, Pius XIII awakens from his coma...

I won't recount the rest of the plot, in part because it becomes increasingly convoluted. Some elements, including much-hyped cameos by Marilyn Manson and Sharon Stone, add nothing to the narrative. There are subplots of various degrees of importance, including a protracted 'strike' by cloistered nuns in the Vatican, the rise of a fanatical sect devoted to Pius XIII led by the scowling Woman in Red (Kika Georgiou), and the degrading downward spiral of Esther Aubry (Ludivine Sagnier), a young mother whose friendship with Pius XIII played an important role in The Young Pope and who is reduced in the new series to near-homelessness and sexual exploitation. Sorrentino naturally indulges his penchant for arresting visuals and impressive set-pieces, offering (for example) ravishing scenes of Pope Pius XIII making his return to the Sistine Chapel mounted on the sedia gestatoria before an audience of astonished cardinals and later crowd-surfing on the outstretched hands of the adoring faithful in St. Peter's Square. Scenes in which several masked terrorists take a group of schoolchildren and a young priest hostage on the Tyrrhenian island of Ventotene are impressive as much for their gritty realism (unexpected from Sorrentino) as for the beauty of the unique setting. John Brannox's devotion to the memory of his deceased brother Adam is vividly conveyed by a series of poignant and understated flashbacks that show the twins as young adults – together on horseback, skiing down a snow-covered mountain, and racing to button their cassocks as seminarians (Adam teases John for going too slow, leading the resentful John to slap his too-perfect brother across the jaw).

What, if anything, does The New Pope add to the story recounted in The Young Pope? Some characters reprised from the first series gain greater depth and humanity as, in different ways, their old certainties are taken from them and they must struggle to find a new place in the world (a dynamic that represents an important theme for Paolo Sorrentino, who once told an interviewer that "my protagonists tend to be people who need to learn how to be in the world"). Silvio Orlando’s Cardinal Voiello is a perfect example: the ruthless, calculating Vatican secretary of state already showed surprising reserves of empathy and tenderness in the first series through his friendship with Girolamo, a handicapped boy he babysat each evening. In the second series, Voiello's world is shaken by his forced resignation as secretary of state ("I love giving orders," he rues, "it's my whole life"). Afterward, Voiello finds a new sense of purpose and deeper happiness as he moves (with Girolamo) to a rustic villa inhabited by a now-elderly priest mentor and there devotes himself to gardening and nurturing his relationships with friends like Sofia who come to visit him.

Papal press secretary Sofia Dubois was already present in the first series but remained on the periphery, overshadowed as a strong female character by Sister Mary (Diane Keaton), the steely nun who raised Lenny Belardo and follows him to the Vatican. Sister Mary is absent from The New Pope, but Sofia comes into her own as a more complex, fully-realized character. She is instantly charmed by the sensitive, dandyish John Brannox – after their first meeting, she comments, "the man seems to be made of velvet" – and becomes a close confidante of the new Pope John Paul III. Though she initially turns a blind eye to the manipulation of Brannox, Sofia ultimately finds the courage to team up with Voiello to bring down the members of Spalletta's cabal, including her own husband. Ultimately, it is Lenny Belardo, more than anyone else, who must find a new place in the world: awakening from a coma, he must grapple with his apparent position as pope emeritus (which he initially likens to the role of "an honorary president" who "[doesn't] count") as others demand that he continue to provide spiritual leadership.

Among the 'new' characters, a few stand out. John Malkovich's John Brannox is nothing if not original, a mascara-wearing aesthete and former punk who hates making decisions. As John Paul III, Brannox transcends his reclusive nature with a number of dramatic gestures and a concern for the visibility of the papal office ("every Marilyn should know who the pope is," Brannox declares, in sharp contrast with Lenny Belardo's insistence that "I have no image" and steadfast refusal to be photographed or seen in public). In broad outline if not in detail, the figure of Brannox recalls a certain popular image of Pope Paul VI as an erudite and cultivated man who could also be painfully indecisive. (At the same time, and perhaps more provocatively, one could ask whether the charismatic Lenny Belardo has a bit of Pope John Paul II about him.)

Turning to other new faces of the second series, Cardinal Voiello's priest secretary Don Cavallo (Antonio Petrocelli) is at once suave and devious, a perfect complement to his Machiavellian boss. The unlikely duo of Bauer (Mark Ivanir) and Leopold Essence (J. David Hinze) are, it seems, American intelligence operatives, though (to echo an observation made by my friend Rick Yoder in his writeup on The New Pope) it might be better to think of them as avenging angels who occasionally sweep in to reestablish the status quo ante and to correct particularly egregious wrongs. The eyepatch-wearing Essence (clearly inspired by The Cowboy in David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive) delivers one of the most important lines in the series, appearing in the Vatican canteen to urge Sofia to "follow the love" because "that's where you will find failure."

If The New Pope has a particular place in Sorrentino's oeuvre, it may be seen as an extended meditation on 'the failure of love.' John Brannox has never felt the love of his parents nor, he believes, the love of God. On becoming pope, Brannox declares, "We only have one problem... the problem is love." All the problems in the world, Brannox thinks, are distortions of love – distortions that cannot necessarily be corrected but can at least be redirected to limit their ill effects. The unfortunate Esther Aubry, former confidante of Pope Pius XIII, suffers throughout the series on account of 'failures of love': abandoned by her husband, she starts a new relationship with a man who introduces her to a life of prostitution, where she later draws scorn and rejection after falling in love with a client. If anyone in the series is exempt from the failures of love, it is Girolamo, the handicapped young man whom Cardinal Voiello describes as his best friend; when Girolamo dies, Voiello eulogizes his friend by describing him as a saint, a representative of "the world who suffers, the world who loves."

I'm tempted to say that The New Pope itself represents the failure of love, lacking the spark of The Young Pope despite some good moments. The sentiment that the new series is inferior to its predecessor is one of the reasons that it has taken me so long to write about The New Pope, as I was not completely convinced that it was worth writing about. On the other hand, the series is worthwhile for Sorrentino completists (like me) who want to understand how all of the director's films and series fit together as a coherent whole. If The New Pope inspires some to (re-)watch The Young Pope or to dive into Sorrentino's other work, I suppose that it will have done some good.


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