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The New Pope (Jude Law/John Malkovich) - Complete Season Review

The New Pope

Review by Rob Carnevale

IndieLondon Rating: 4 out of 5

PAOLO Sorrentino’s belated follow-up to his richly absorbing The Young Pope was a fantastically entertaining series that frequently went from the sublime to the ridiculous in its depiction of the Catholic Church.

Playful, intelligent, wilfully perverse and occasionally onerous, the series was also capable of breath-taking moments of tragedy and – at its very best – scenes that were profoundly moving. It was also a series that dared to expose the foibles of modern Catholicism, confronting hot button issues such as abuse and sexuality, while also falling prey to its own acts of poor decision making.

If this sounds like the series was a mess; then, yes, in parts it was. But Sorrentino’s ability to continually provoke his audience ensured that The New Pope remained compulsive viewing, if only to see what its creator would dare to dream up next.

Picking up nine months after the former series left off, The New Pope finds Pope Pius XIII (Jude Law) in a coma, prompting the election of a replacement pontiff that is overseen by the superbly mischievous Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando).

A first attempt at finding a replacement who can be controlled backfires spectacularly, and eventually results in the untimely demise of another pope, before a popular choice turns out to be British aristocrat Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), who receives the name of John Paul III.

But John Paul comes with his own demons (stemming from the death of his brother and the disapproval of his parents), prompting much soul-searching and some surprise revelations.

All this is set against the context of the rise of an Islamic terrorist threat, a possible strike by the Vatican’s nuns and the potential for a miracle posed by the unstable nature of Pius XIII’s coma. Could he eventually wake up? And would that constitute a new miracle?

Circling around these central conceits are supporting players such as Ludivine Sagnier’s single mother, who is forced into a form of prostitution in order to secure her financial survival; the shadowy Bauer (Mark Ivanir), who seems to be orchestrating Vatican affairs from behind the scenes, and various Cardinals and papal staff who have their own agendas.

Sorrentino, for his part, throws everything at the screen, seducing viewers with his cheeky insights into Vatican splendour and the papal power plays that surround it. And he often plants his tongue firmly in cheek, with wilfully absurdist sequences played out to interesting soundtrack choices: whether it’s nuns in see-through white vestments dancing provocatively at the start of most episodes, or Law’s Pius XIII strutting his stuff along a beach, surrounded by bikini-clad women, to a cover of a Hendrix classic (he even gets Law to wink at the audience at the climax of that one).

There are also a couple of deliciously fun cameos, from Sharon Stone and Marilyn Manson, playing versions of themselves: the former including a playful nod to Basic Instinct and a wonderfully barbed conversation in which the idea of updating the Bible is shut down because ‘the Bible is not an iPhone’.

In moments such as these, Sorrentino is clearly having fun and that tongue in cheek revelry translates brilliantly to the audience.

At others, however, the director sometimes oversteps the mark. His depiction of women continues to be a problem, with Sagnier in particular feeling exploited. Her story arc feels false and poorly written, with Sorrentino frequently placing her in lecherous situations that make for uncomfortable viewing.

Indeed, there’s an overtly sexualised element to the series as a whole that sometimes feels troubling: for as much as Sorrentino appears to be inviting the church to make a definite stand against sexual abuse, the series itself frequently fell victim to some exploitative excess (as evidenced by Sagnier’s storyline or those dancing nuns).

Maybe, Sorrentino is holding the audience to account, too… inviting them to enjoy his visions and – thereby – confront their own hypocrisy for what is and isn’t exploitative.

What’s for sure is that seldom an episode passes in which Sorrentino isn’t asking questions of his audience or its targets. Sometimes he does this in the wordy observations of its principal players, with lengthy ruminations delivered on the true nature of love and faith.

But he also does this by exposing the abuse of power that forms a seemingly intrinsic part of many a complex organisation. Hence, while the Catholic Church provides the focal point here, there are times when some of the power plays and deceptions wouldn’t feel out of place within the Mafia or the higher echelons of government. And it’s part of the Machiavellian joy of watching the series unfold.

The New Pope

It’s when tackling power, faith and loss that the series thrives. For the former, Sorrentino frequently calls upon Voiello, whose diplomacy and passion for game-playing are wonderfully delivered by the great actor that is Orlando. He is both fiendishly clever and deceptively amusing. The longer the series progresses, the more the actor comes into his own.

For loss, we had Malkovich’s central protagonist wrestling with his own guilt for the loss of his brother (which he did impeccably, combining elements of desperate sorrow with selfishness), not to mention several of the supporting characters (and one, belatedly, surprisingly so).

As for faith, Sorrentino provides no real answers. But he does drop in moments that can only be described as divine inspiration, moments that provide heart-breaking poignancy, as in episode seven when Jude Law finally returns and spends his time with a papal doctor and his wife in Venice, as they struggle to care for their sick son and pray for a miracle.

The episode in question found Pius confronting his own mortality and capacity for saintliness and gave rise to some devastatingly intimate moments – both between the doctor and his wife as they sought to heal their wounds, and for Pius himself as he demanded an unlikely miracle. The climax was Sorrentino at his absolute best.

It’s in such moments that The New Pope truly excelled and which helped the series to overcome some of its more troubling, trashy or unsuccessful elements.

Sorrentino, for all of his flaws and excesses, emerged once more as a fearless provocateur; a director capable of seducing and appalling in equal measure, of inspiring debate and self-reflection and of touching the heart and soul.

The New Pope, in its final analysis, was as enigmatic, ridiculous, troubling and inspirational as the church it depicts: a beautiful mess of ideas that somehow still held together as a miraculous whole.