Italian auteur Paolo Sorrentino’s series The Young Pope was a global sensation. A lush, sensuous look at power and religion, its combination of religious questioning, opulent beauty and attention-grabbing strangeness – most popes don’t get into staring matches with a kangaroo while walking the Vatican gardens – made it a series everyone was talking about. So how do you go one better than a young pope? You bring in a new and very different pope to shake things up.
Before we go any further, a minor spoilers alert - if you haven't watched The Young Pope, you can head to SBS On Demand and catch up, before reading on. All 10 episodes are streaming now.
The Young Pope began with a fair amount of behind-the-scenes skulduggery leading to the Catholic Church’s cardinals electing the first ever American pope. The big twist was that, despite being a young pope, Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) rapidly displayed attitudes that were anything but youthful.
No sooner was he installed in the top job (taking the name Pius XIII) than he started to steer the Catholic Church in the kind of conservative direction not seen in decades. Gay priests were purged from the church, while women who’d had an abortion were denied the holy sacrament.
His whole approach was to appeal to the hardcore faithful while kicking everyone else to the curb. That explained why Pius XIII wasn’t exactly a man of the people, making old-style public appearances a thing of the past while fostering a personality cult that enabled him to sideline the established power structure. Obviously the established power structure, most notably Cardinal Secretary of State Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), weren’t all that happy with this.
So you’d think they’d be all smiles now, as The Young Pope ended with Pius XIII keeling over after possibly seeing his long-estranged parents. They abandoned him at a nunnery when he was a small child, which went a long way towards explaining his ambivalent attitude towards God and the church… even if he did end up being raised by a nun (played by Diane Keaton) who thought he was a Saint.
But The New Pope opens with the Catholic Church – or at least, its leadership – in something of a crisis.
It’s been months since Pius XIII fell into a coma, and while Lenny’s fans have turned into a near-blasphemous cult outside his hospital, his initial replacement is looking to actually do some serious good in the world by selling off the Church’s worldly riches to give to the poor. The cardinals, especially Voiello, aren’t pleased with the possibility of losing their perks and finery: a more suitable replacement must be found, and quickly.
Enter Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich), a mascara-wearing British aristocrat whose languid ways suggest a very different approach to the papacy. Malkovich’s performance here is subtle and restrained, an almost polar opposite to Law’s; he’s a man who wins people over with language and ideas rather than the force of his personality.
As John Paul III, this particular new pope promises – in Voiello’s eyes at least – a much more publicly acceptable face to the Catholic Church. And with a new pope who won’t rock the boat, everyone else can get back to what they do best: jockeying for wealth and power.
Things obviously aren’t going to work out that easily. John Paul III has family issues (his parents turned their backs on him after his more-loved twin brother died years ago), and his new approach of preaching love and tolerance has its own limitations in today’s world.
The Church he nominally rules over (don’t tell Voiello he’s not the real boss) is facing more than the usual amount of trouble. The upper echelons of the Vatican are once again rocked by sex scandals, and a nuns’ strike threatens to rattle the foundations of the Catholic Church. At home, Italy is thinking of retroactively taxing the Vatican, while abroad the threat of Islamic terrorism grows with every televised threat from the mysterious “caliph”.
But the real threat is the return of Pius XIII. While he’s in a coma, it’s business as usual whatever the crisis. If and when he happens to wake up (and there’s a reason Law’s name is still in the credits), the Catholic Church will have two masters, and with Lenny’s cult growing stronger every day, the Church will face the kind of challenge to its legitimacy not seen for more than 600 years. If things go the wrong way, it’s very possible the new pope just might end up being the last pope…
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