Plot: Dives into the inner workings of the Vatican, while exploring the very human desires, vices and fragilities of those in power and the complexities inherent in faith today.
Review: Paolo Sorrentino is an acclaimed filmmaker who has won both the Palm D’Or at Cannes and the Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film for THE GREAT BEAUTY. His films are lyrical and beautiful and he brought his sacreligious eye to HBO with The Young Pope in 2017. Now, he returns with a second series with the same main characters but a new title in The New Pope. Still a damning portrayal of the Vatican that will surely enrage Catholics, this series is a profound one with a great performance from John Malkovich. While it may not be quite as enthralling as the first series, this is definitely a provocative and well acted drama that looks at faith in a unique way.
At the conclusion of The Young Pope, Jude Law‘s Pius XIII collapsed while giving a speech and seemed to have died of a heart attack. The start of The New Pope finds Pius in a coma and the Vatican in need of a successor to the highest seat in the Church. While the show takes a couple of episodes to get there, that man is Sir John Brannox, a metrosexual British member of the clergy who doesn’t want the power. He carries a lot of baggage from the death of his twin brother decades earlier but still takes the title of Pope John Paul III. Malkovich steps into his role and portrays his Pope very differently from Jude Law‘s Lenny Belardo. Where Lenny was a disruptor and deeply religious leader, Brannox is a withdrawn, introspective, and reluctant Pope.
Malkovich drops into a lead role here with Law limited to laying in a comatose state or hallucinations for most of the nine episode season. Most of the supporting cast from The Young Pope are back (aside from Diane Keaton) and include Silvio Orlando as the scheming secretary of state Voiello, Javier Camara as Gutierrez, Cecile de France as Vatican marketing director Sofia, and Ludivine Sagnier as Esther. Most of the characters have to find their place in this new Papal cabinet except Esther whose subplot feels very secondary and distinct from the main plot of the season. There are several storylines going on here that include a Vatican “fixer” who works for Voiello, a group of fanatics holding vigil for Pius XIII, and Esther’s tale that involves a group of deformed men who need her to dance for them.
While The Young Pope opened with a great credit sequence set to a remix of “All Along The Watchtower”, The New Pope has a unique opening each chapter that starts with nuns dancing in their underwear before evolving into somehting much different. There is also a closing dance number that features a key character also taken over by the power of dance. A lot of Sorrentino’s series is surreal and strange, but it all just seems to work for the story he is trying to tell. Even when Sofia tells John Brannox he looks a lot like John Malkovich, the nature of the joke doesn’t feel out of place. There are also two cameos from Sharon Stone and Marilyn Manson that fit right in with who this new Pope is as a character.
My biggest disappointment with The New Pope is how long it takes for Jude Law‘s Pius XIII to become a major part of the story. Law’s amazing performance in The Young Pope was one of the best of his career and John Malkovich takes a very different approach to his character. The two share limited screen time together and when they do, Law still blows you away with the energy and immediacy of his performance. Malkovich is quite good here too, but he never feels like a worthy successor, just a very different one. The numerous subplots this season also feel somewhat arbitrary in the end which undermines what is otherwise an excellent series.
Debuting in the wake of Netflix’s Oscar contending THE TWO POPES, The New Pope is far from a flattering portrait of the Papacy. With copious amounts of nudity, this is a portrait of two men who are deeply flawed and how they perceive their relationship with God. You don’t have to be Catholic or even religious to appreciate the themes of this story but you do have to be patient. While there is a payoff to some season long plot devices, The New Pope is more of a journey to be experienced. Not a lot happens but each episode is crammed with a lot to unpack. It may not be for everyone but this is a series that, like the titular Popes, is flawed but fascinating.
The New Pope premieres January 13th on HBO.