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The New Pope – strange goings-on at the Vatican

March 15, 2020

Though I’m not religious, I am a bit of a papaphile. This post might only make sense to those of you who are also interested in popery. Or, more specifically, the work of Paolo Sorrentino, who three years ago directed a gem of a TV series called The Young Pope. It featured Jude Law as a tortured American priest who becomes Pope Pius XIII at an unusually young age.

I loved it (see my review), and I yearned for a follow up, which Sorrentino has duly delivered in the form of The New Pope.

In The New Pope, Jude Law’s character lies in a coma after a heart attack, and the cardinals elect a new pontiff. And then another, in the form of John Malkovich as an English aristocrat who also happens to be a priest. And then Pius XIII wakes up.

The whole thing is like a dream, in which a central questions – what sort of church is fit for purpose in the 21st Century, and indeed whether the church’s beliefs and traditions are immutable or flexible – slither in and out of the narrative. Accompanied by dancing nuns, a sinister character who claims to be God and his devilish assistant, a woman enlisted as a whore in the service of Christ, a malevolent jihadist and a troupe of fanatical worshippers of the stricken young pope. Plus corruption, hypocrisy and gay cardinals in every corner.

The central character is not, as you might expect, either of the two popes, but the ubiquitous Cardinal Voiello (magnificently played by Silvio Orlando), pope-maker and “the longest-serving Secretary of State in the history of the church” as he frequently points out. He presides like a tarantula over a far-reaching web of influence. He knows where all the skeletons are hidden.

Yet he’s far from a cardboard baddie. He cares about the church as much as his own career. And his best friend is a disabled boy to whom he has provided a home and companionship. When the boy dies, the subsequent funeral in front of the pope and the cardinals, and Voiello’s eulogy in which he describes the life the boy would have lived had he not been disabled, are deeply moving.

While Malkovich does a decent job of the effete and damaged aristocrat, the drama comes alive when Lenny, the stricken pope, emerges from his coma. I sometimes think Jude Law doesn’t get enough credit for his acting skills. In The New Pope he is superb. He contributes scenes of great pathos, with moments of sweetness you would not have expected after watching the first series.

I have no idea about Sorrentino’s religious beliefs, but this surely is the work of a man on whom the Catholic Church is indelibly engraved. It’s stylish, beautifully staged, well-acted and full of humour and emotional intensity. The Vatican, as most of us see it, is theatre, which the director captures with panache. It’s a mysterious tableau, on which Sorrentino paints his fantasies, and millions of the faithful paint theirs.

The real work of the church takes place in less glamorous places. Yet would it be the same without its glittering epicentre? Watching the faces, full of wonder and devotion as they listen to their holy father addressing them from his balcony, you might think not.

Does the story end here? There’s plenty of life in the characters, though I doubt if all of them would make it to Series 3. But if anyone can create another chapter to equal the first two, it must be Paolo Sorrentino.

From → Art, Film, Religion, Theatre

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