‘The New Pope’ Stylishly Finds the Wicked Dance Between Religion and Politics

Italian director Paolo Sorrentino is nearly impossible to categorize. All that is certain is that he is a director of great style. Decadence and power course through his work like vicious twin souls, but dressed in fine silks. That’s precisely the style he applies to HBO’s “The New Pope,” a follow-up to Sorrentino’s 2016 limited series “The Young Pope.” While the world of the show remains the same, nestled within the vast corridors of the Vatican, the pace is quicker and less reflective. Aesthetic pleasure is its true faith.

It’s a few months since the first of “The Young Pope” and Lenny a.k.a. Pius XIII (Jude Law) remains comatose, taken down by a sudden heart attack. After undergoing a transplant he remains in coma. Left without a pontiff, the Catholic Church’s high functionaries in Rome begin to immediately seek a replacement. Ever so scheming is Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), who has never hidden his own aspirations to the chair of St. Peter. Yet his own aims are thwarted by the appearance of an old rival, Fernandez (also played by Voiello), who splits the vote. A surprise choice turns out to be a disaster when the Vatican’s official confessor, renaming himself Francis II (Maurizio Lombardi) gets the job and attempts to radically reform the church and offer all of its wealth to the poor. But when he drops dead Voiello and other Vatican figures settle on a refined, middle of the road choice, Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich). As political maneuvers are made to assure Brannox’s ascension, the ghost of Lenny roams around the lives of everyone involved, and on a lone television screen in the Vatican we see warnings being issued by an Islamist group threatening holy war.

“The Young Pope” marked Sorrentino’s first serious dive into American cable television, and in this TV golden age he was allowed to indulge in the kind of stylistic flourishes that have marked his films like “The Great Beauty” and “Il Divo.” He has always been a filmmaker of feverish energy, where the dynamic images overtake the narrative itself, even in his recent “Loro,” a hallucinatory and debauched take on the life of the infamous Silvio Berlusconi. His papal opuses for HBO are a strange mix of spirituality and fashion, political intrigue and metaphysical drama. Even critics who enjoyed “The Young Pope” couldn’t quite tell what the plot was about. Jude Law’s Lenny was above the church’s corruption, wandering like a saint, grappling with his past as an orphan before a heart attack struck. “The New Pope” isn’t a sequel so much as a new vision, moving faster while still taking detours to allow characters to ponder questions of life and fate. What stays most in the memory is the aesthetic Sorrentino applies, filming the Vatican and its world with baroque strokes, neon lights and hypnotic sequences. In the opening scenes of this series a nun gives a comatose Lenny a sponge bath with eroticism flowing out of every frame. Pilgrims with Lenny’s face on their sweaters pray day and night on the Vatican’s main square, and John Malkvoich’s Brannox dresses in suits worthy of a Vanity Fair cover (no doubt meticulously chosen by Malkovich, himself a designer), while living in a lavish estate. European pop and classical music fill the soundtrack. 

The characters more than the plot drive the series as well, because Sorrentino doesn’t generate much suspense from traditional narratives. In a sense it is the feelings of these personalities that matter the most. Brannox sits in his estate in mild depression, haunted by the fact that his parents blame him for the death of his younger brother. Yet he receives calls from Meghan Merkel, who needs fashion advice. Sofia (Cécile de France), the no nonsense marketing head of the Vatican, also deals with a particular loneliness even as she controls the perceptions of powerful men. When a Vatican delegation visits Brannox to convince him to be Pope, two priests come close to spending the night together, with one lamenting, “we will feel even lonelier later.” If Jude Law was the center of attention in the first series, Silvio Orlando’s sharp and astute Voiello dominates much of this one. He does not function as a villain, but as a calculating official who works to preserve a 2,000-year old institution. There’s dark humor when Francis II fumbles his first speech to the masses and Voiello tries to feed him lines from a few feet away, only for Francis to suddenly explode into a revolutionary proclamation. The tragedy of Voiello is that he has the firm character of steel perfect for a political figure, but he operates in an institution which at the end of the day is based on faith.

In classic Sorrentino fashion “The New Pope” is prone to flights of fancy, suddenly swerving into wild images and never quite developing cliffhangers, just fascinating personalities. But that is the charm of the show. Once Brannox becomes Pope (not a spoiler if you’ve seen the ads everywhere), Malkovich is allowed to act in deeper, even more spiritual ways than we’re used to seeing him in movies. While in cinema Sorrentino is known for chronicling the decadent lives of the Italian upper class, in his papal shows he allows the powerful to be more self-reflective. Some of the narrative gets quite hyper religious, like Esther (Ludivine Sagnier), who in “The Young Pope” was barren and suddenly became pregnant after prayers from Lenny, now becoming a public personality claiming she is proof Lenny should be canonized as a saint. Yet Sorrentino is never mocking faith or religion, but as a secularist he uses this series to explore through surreal, at times melodramatic style, their very nature and complexities. Even when Voiello is acting like any calculating political figure, he’s aware God might be watching.

“The New Pope” is enjoyable for its look and performances, and for the way it explores the world of Vatican politics with just enough humor. There’s also something refreshing about seeing a studio like HBO give a unique director like Sorrentino free reign, allowing for visions both strange and alluring to grace the screen. Just in terms of aesthetic pleasure it’s a religious experience.

The New Pope” premieres Jan. 13 and airs Mondays at 9 p.m. ET on HBO.