The New Pope opens its doors with a church in shambles, but a show with strong direction, dark humor, and the same weirdness that made its predecessor worthy of its title.
This recap of The New Pope Season 1, Episode 1, contains spoilers.
When The Young Pope ended a couple of years ago, audiences, both in St. Peter’s Square and in front of TV screens and laptops, left with a feeling of surprise. Closing one of the best shows of the decade with the possible papal death of Lenny Belardo (Jude Law) remains a smart move by creator/writer/director Paolo Sorrentino, a master in injecting spirit into the church. None of us knew if we were getting another season, another pope, or another chance at faith-filled redemption.
The Young Pope continues to be one of the oddest television shows of the last few years, featuring kangaroos, dancing prime ministers, religious gossip, a lovely Diane Keaton, and a premise with a magnetic Jude Law at the forefront. Throw out all of these screwball elements and what’s left was a deeply fascinating and intriguing portrait of a man consumed by power and miracles.
Law’s Pope Pius XIII changed lives and inspired more than a few believers during his tumultuous tenure, but provided an essential and humanistic look at an institution plagued by constant real-world issues. While watching Sorrentino’s first season, you felt at the minimum a tinge a spirituality, and at most, a full-fledged investigation of your own beliefs. The sharp humor sprinkled throughout just became a bonus.
Though HBO has not branded The New Pope as a sequel, it picks up nearly 10 months after The Young Pope ends, with Pius XIII in a coma, and three failed heart transplants. The opening scene features a nun hand washing the naked pope with a sensual style, cutting as she looks to excite herself off-camera. Sorrentino isn’t pulling any punches during this second round.
If that opening scene doesn’t prove the sheer wildness of this show, the credits roll as nuns dance in close quarters to Sofi Tukker’s “Good Time Girl,” an EDM head-shaker shot to rave-like strobe lights. You can’t shake this opening, and it sets a tone for what you’re about to watch. This is far from now Oscar-nominated The Two Popes and much closer to Euphoria. Oh, and a note: As soon as the The New Pope Episode 1 ends, you immediately want to watch these credits 100 more times.
As the crowd prays in unison wearing Pius XIII hoodies, scheming Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando) speaks with government representative/hitman/fixer Bauer (Mark Ivanir) about the current state of affairs. Bauer looks for a new caucus, as he believes a new pope is needed. He talks of Pius XIII’s fandom and an incredible couple of lines follow in their conversation:
“Idolatry is the prelude to war,” says Bauer.
“Our procedures are our power,” says Voiello.
Following this, Voiello gathers with fellow cardinals in a bamboo forest, and advocates for his own papacy, leading to the new conclave. Sorrentino again uses modern dance music during these traditional procedures, a device you don’t realize you need until you’ve seen it. During this meeting of cardinals, the votes continually get split between Voiello, his near-twin Cardinal Hernandez (Orlando without a mole), and Sir John Brannox (John Malkovich without a single line in The New Pope Episode 1).
Truly funny conversations ensue, with Voiello and Hernandez talking down to one another, making fun of each other’s appearances despite their striking resemblance. Knowing he cannot win, Voiello employs the “weak candidate theory”, electing someone he knows he can manipulate in Cardinal Viglietti, the man who helped Pius XIII since he hears the confessions of all those in the Vatican.
Viglietti, choosing the name Pope Francis II, which also means the current Pope Francis would likely already be dead, becomes confident during his initial speech when a bird steals his notes, making him speak from the heart. He realizes his new extreme power, leading him to open the Vatican doors for refugees, selling all of the cardinals’ jewelry, emptying the vault, and liquidating all of the Vatican’s assets.
His reign, lasting the second half of the episode, would be an interesting character study in power and madness in itself, but Sorrentino has a different story to tell. After a meeting between the two Voiellos, they decide to take out Viglietti and elect Brannox at the new conclave. Bring in oyster-slurper Bauer and Pope Francis II loses his papal crown, right as Pope Pius XIII moves his finger.
This first episode moved quicker than about half of those in The Young Pope, and it’s clear that Sorrentino has a mission for this new series. Malkovich figures to feature heavily throughout the rest of the season, and it’s only a matter of time until Jude Law comes back from the dead, and the raucous Pius XIII continues performing miracles and enchanting God-fearers around the world. Their collision course should excite and terrify watchers and believers alike, and Sorrentino has given us a springboard to launch into this season of religious television.
Ridiculous, hilarious, and still an interesting look into the procedures of one of the world’s biggest organizations, The New Pope demands to be watched, and rest assured, we should all have faith in its transformative spectacle.
Based in Brooklyn, NY, Michael is a regular critic for Ready Steady Cut and also writes for Cinema Sentries, The Film Experience and Film Inquiry.