When we meet at the Venice Film Festival for his series The New Pope, the ever-effusive and jovial Paolo Sorrentino is chuffed that his English has improved. Since we have met many times before, in our initial greeting I call him “darling” and he quizzes me about my use of the word. I tell him it’s a British term of endearment and that “honey” and “sweetheart” are used as well.
“How are you, darling?” he says, trying it out on me and repeating it as if he likes the sound of it. “I like ‘darling’, and ‘honey’ and ‘sweetheart’ as well.”
In The New Pope John Malkovich is playing British aristocrat Sir John Brannox, a priest and former punk rocker who becomes Pope John Paul III. So Sorrentino has been practising his English a lot of late. He explains that the series came about during the editing of The Young Pope where Jude Law played Pope Pius XIII, the first American to assume papal duties.
“I started to develop this idea of the Pope in coma and what might happen then.”
He now has an idea for a third season, but says then he will be done. “It’s a trilogy”.
Sorrentino has experienced great success writing and directing for the big screen, most notably with Il Divo and his Oscar winner The Great Beauty, both starring Toni Servillo. He may not have had such success with This Must Be the Place, his English-language debut starring Sean Penn as a retired rock star sporting eyeliner (which Malkovich wears in The New Pope), yet it was highly original, as was Youth starring Michael Caine and Harvey Keitel.
The extravagant, satirical tone Sorrentino adopts for The New Pope comes naturally, he says. “I don’t have to calculate. I have the same tone with my movies as I have myself. I am very depressed and funny,” he chuckles, “but only a little depressed, not too much.”
He was born in Naples and attended a Catholic high school so it was easy for him to create a series about the Catholic Church, even if he has long left religion behind.
“I’m a non-believer but I always have in my mind the question regarding whether I should believe or not. This is enough to put me in [a] position of curiosity.”
Still, are there limits to his imagination, given it’s the Vatican and the Pope he’s dealing with?
“No, no. I have no limits. Nobody has told me I must do anything. Never. So I am lucky.”
The trailer featuring Jude Law walking majestically alongside Venice’s Lido beach was released long before the first two episodes of The New Pope (which are now streaming at SBS On Demand). Everyone was excited by Law in speedos, I tell Sorrentino.
“I hope that everyone was excited by the same thing from the women,” he says of the bikini-wearing models and actresses, including Cecile de France, who plays the Vatican publicist.
What did Law say when he asked him to do it?
“He said yes. He has a beautiful body so why not? I was playing with fact that Jude Law is a sex symbol. The main title sequence can be whatever you want. It can be a joke or a funny thing. It’s also about the nuns and playing with their bodies too.”
Highly instinctual, Sorrentino often cannot come up with a reason for what he does. He tries to strike a balance between the tender, the funny and the dramatic moments.
“Every day when I work on the script and even when I am about to shoot the scenes I ask myself if it’s too much of one thing or the other. Sometimes there are too many funny moments so I remove something.”
He famously does not shy away from sex or nudity. In fact, it’s one of his trademarks.
“Nudity is a part of life and I try to show life. It’s very simple. In these last years everybody is afraid of nudity and I don't know why. You have two options: to stay dressed or be naked. I put both options. I know that the Pope in a moment of his life has to be naked and I don’t know why I mustn’t show the Pope naked, or women. If in certain scenes I think I must have sex, I must have sex. I don’t see a reason to avoid it. It’s exactly like I do with other material.”
Is there a reason that Malkovich and Law have reversed their nationalities for their roles?
“It’s a coincidence. There was just something that happened when I chose Jude Law. There was this thing about him. John Malkovich would say ‘Darling’ all the time and is very British in his way. He studied a lot to speak British as Jude studied to speak as an American.”
Sorrentino concedes that a major change with The New Pope is that the action broadens out into the real world. “The first season I chose to show the Vatican from the inside, a world with walls, also because Jude Law’s Pope is very conservative and he had the idea that the Vatican must be closed to the outside. Now we have a different Pope.”
How did the Vatican react to the first season?
“There were not too many reactions, not for a long time, because the Vatican has the habit of not saying anything. They are very slow and take time to think about things and in this sense I greatly appreciate the Church. I don’t like the modern way that somebody does something and there are lots of people ready to express their opinions. It’s too much for me. I like to be open-minded.
“The philosopher Henri Frédéric Amiel writes how every direct resistance has the outcome of disaster. When you are opposed to something, you have to take your time, and the Church does this. The intelligent priests can work things out and not be provocative or controversial. The series is not against the Church. We tried to represent the Church in all its aspects.”
Episodes 1 and 2 of The New Pope are now at SBS On Demand. Two new episodes drop weekly on Thursdays:
As we count down the days remaining in 2019, join Ben, Fiona, and special guest John, as they count down their favourite movies and TV shows the year. They laugh, they disagree, and they realise there's not as much crossover on their lists as they expected (*especially when they make up their own rules about what constitutes the 'best' in a 'best of' list). Fiona is joined by special guest, Celine Sciamma, director of 'Portrait of a Lady on Fire', which is in cinemas on Boxing Day and which also - spoiler - rates pretty highly on Fiona's best of 2019 movies list. Fiona also reviews the full list of Boxing Day releases, as Ben and John reveal what they'll be watching over summer. It's a big episode to cap off a big year. Happy holidays to all and see you again in 2020.