Spoiler warning for both The New Pope and 2016’s The Young Pope.
Check out our review of the original series.
Choreographed nuns sway, club-like, in front of a neon cross. John Malkovich positively haunts a British palace (in eyeliner) before donning the garb of Rome’s latest pontiff. An inconvenient cleric falls prey to what no one wants to admit may have been a hit job. Members of a perhaps-obsessive personality cult gather outside the Vatican in matching, vestment-doffing hoodies.
These are just a few of the ingredients thrown into the jarring mix that is The New Pope, an HBO miniseries directed by Oscar-winner Paolo Sorrentino that finished its run either last month or just the other week, depending on where you live. Over its nine-episode run, it turned out to be an uneven miniseries that explores Vatican power politics with a mix of scandal, sex and jaw-dropping cinematography. The show proves just as concerned with sin and loneliness as with grace and redemption, and for all its flaws raises a unnerving bar for depicting religious institutions on screen.
The miniseries is a direct follow up to 2016’s The Young Pope, which featured a charismatic, deeply conservative pontiff (the startingly human Pius XIII, played by Jude Law) who advocates for an unapologetic return to grandeur and tradition. He falls into a coma by the end of the first series, prompting the election of John Malkovich’s Francis II by the third episode of The New Pope.
Much of the plot (though, with Sorrentino, plot should never be mistaken for the main course) revolves around Francis II’s dedication to the ‘middle way,’ a moderate corrective to the flashier policies of Pius XIII – a corrective that various characters embrace or struggle against. The series, however, is anything but moderate. Its themes (and characters) embrace dramatic highs and lows, as does the show’s quality. Which makes for a mixed viewing experience, but there are more than enough solid moments sprinkled among the disappointing ones to keep one watching. That is, if problematic, art-house Vatican dramas are your thing.
Sitting in tension
One of the biggest things that feels new, at least in 2020, is the show’s refusal to ignore the fact that the Vatican is the epicenter of a) a recent, gut-churning scandal and b) an undismissable, two-thousand-year history of tradition, innovation, pain, exhilaration, substance, sacrifice, betrayal, oppression (on both sides of the giving/taking line) and some of Europe’s finest art. It may help that the show’s atmosphere is bewildering, dreamlike – a perfect soil on which to refuse to polarize or take sides.
And taking sides is all too easy, especially when confronted with narratives that, at least in our divided culture, seem bent on not allowing any other interpretation into the room. And most popular, Vatican-themed art falls into this very trap. On the one hand you get overly-hygienic portrayals of the Vatican as the heart of everything pure in the world (nearly every major devotional papal drama), or on the other you get one-sided (though necessary) dramas like Spotlight or exploitive soft-porn à la The Borgias.
The tension between these two poles often proves too strong to resist. But that’s precisely what The New Pope, for all its flaws, does. It recognizes that the subject matter may invite a joke or two but never reduces the Church to a punchline. It acknowledges the doctrinal issues that are out of step with the liberal West without falling into the trope of “sensitive leader throws all to the wind and embraces change.” It talks about sin without reducing a dynamic, breathing, suffering institution to the sins of its members. Sorrentino does land more than a few cheap shots, sure, but just as often he refuses the easy way out.
The show’s comfort with this tension proves thrilling all the way through. There’s something dynamic, even fresh, in being willing to sit so near an open wound. The miniseries does tend to wallow, but I never felt bored when it wallowed through these paradoxes. There’s never a pressure to rush towards a comfortable resolution – in fact, resolution’s often denied in favour of being present to the characters and their crises. This might prove frustrating to those who expect a more conventional TV experience, one that opts for tying loose ends and such, but for me this is one of the show’s greatest strengths. Like the 2017’s Twin Peaks revival, The New Pope is small-screen art-house writ large.
It has to be said, though, that for all the miniseries’ innovative bits there’s a feeling that Sorrentino doesn’t understand his subject enough. Before you go off and stream the show, be warned: for every electrifying moment there’s another around the corner that invites pure facepalm. And the culprit is familiar indeed.
Yes, Sorrentino, religious literacy really is a thing
Religious literacy, or rather illiteracy, is the show’s biggest disappointment and may prove harder for believers to swallow than the awkward homilies, ecclesial posturing or the number of breasts on display (the oogle-factor is indeed high and off-putting). For all The New Pope’s interest in the trappings and emotional legacy of Roman Catholicism, the show proves deeply ambivalent about its moral and philosophical underpinnings.
In many ways the same could be said of Netflix’s recent, Oscar-nominated The Two Popes. Both feature long conversations where high-ranking magisterial figures lack a basic grasp of Christian theology, or even history. Yes, both films dive fearlessly into, and struggle with, the thornier issues that more conventional Catholic dramas tend to gloss over. And yes, their directors come from traditionally Catholic societies and bring an aesthetic to bear that’s rarely seen in religious films. But the absence of even seventh-grade catechesis is cringeworthy.
In The New Pope, the lazy moments feel more gratuitous. The struggle between virtue and vice is often swapped out for one between repression and self-actualization, replacing the narrative of the cross with that of the Enlightenment. And the ability to experience pleasure seems to be Sorrentino’s primary indicator for said self-actualization, which partly explains why the camera often skips with glee over art, architecture and women’s bodies. It’s a forced dichotomy that ignores much of what the institution actually stands for and struggles to embody.
This is the kind of show that’s easy to make when showrunners are confronted by a world they don’t entirely understand. As in, The New Pope, for all its innovations, is still an attempt within a secular, liberal-leaning context to make sense of Catholicism. Or to make Catholicism relevant by transplanting it into a philosophically foreign ecosystem.
This leads to major distortions, which can be distressing for people of faith. It can evoke legitimate feelings of distaste, defensiveness or offense over how the artists, at best, didn’t do their homework or, at worst, didn’t think any homework was necessary. What we’re looking at here is a work of art about religion where the core tenets of that religion are conspicuously absent. Which means the members of a given community remain misrepresented.
In certain circles, talking about cultural appropriation (as a concept) often generates resistance – some wonder just what the problem is with engaging with or reusing elements of a different culture. But this misunderstands the idea: cultural appropriation happens when a group, one that has a certain element of power, systematically uses or represents elements of another culture in ways that are problematic, hurtful or damaging.
This is essentially the major issue with The New Pope: it’s obsessed with the history, costumes and drama of the papacy but, like many other shows and films before it, it proves too easy to appropriate them to tell a story that marginalizes the experiences of actual clergy and lay Catholics. In this sense, if we ask “what’s new about The New Pope?” the answer would be “not much.” Yet another story about Catholics with too little Catholicism involved.
Which adds up to a frustrating experience. Sorrentino’s ability to explore contemporary tensions in the Vatican is painfully fresh, maybe even necessary in a way we still need to unpack – but all the same he swings wildly off-mark when it comes to Catholicism as spirituality, metaphysics and a way of life. So where does that leave Catholic viewers?
Moving forward, if that’s what we want
When it comes to what you’re willing to tolerate in art, everyone’s got a different threshold. For some, The New Pope goes too far. For others, not far enough. No matter where your feelings are along that spectrum, they’re legit – no one’s obliged to swallow the dish Sorrentino’s prepared.
What we’re looking at here is an in-between point, a stillborn prophecy that isn’t able to live up to its own promise – yet. Everything about it that’s momentous comes with the whiff of something stale or even exhausting. That’s the tension we’re left with.
While I’m sure others might disagree, I have a feeling that if we want to get through to the other side, to a place where we see more art that engages wholeheartedly with the deep realities of religious, clerical and institutional lives, we need to process and imbibe just what The New Pope does right. Even if that means rubbing up against what it does wrong. That doesn’t mean legitimizing its flaws or pretending they don’t matter, but it does call for rigorous, generous engagement.
I think what I want to say is that I’m not entirely sure if The New and Young Pope are good. What I’m sure of, though, is that they’re important, maybe even precious. And one of the biggest reasons why is that they find new ways, new forms of presenting clergy, institutions, traditions – ways that transcend the polarizing rhetoric, ways that make conservatives out to be something more than crazy, wounded or intellectually malnourished. Sorrentino’s antiheroes are flawed, sympathetic, sometimes badass.
The sheer artistry in the cinematography makes St. Peter’s Basilica seem young again. The acting gives depth to figures that are simplified even in the religious media. Spiritual leaders, often publicly reduced to hypocrites or saints, are allowed moments of confusion, mischief, depression and surprise. There’s a palpable feeling of helplessness and horror over the crises this papacy’s inherited. Everywhere there’s an atmosphere of vitality, matched by loss. There’s the creeping sense that being surrounded by even this much beauty won’t insulate one from disappointment, indifference or aging. Sorrentino’s curia are clever, deflated, inventive and lonely. Genuine delight feels possible again because there’s no guarantee it will come at all.
For me, the show’s desire to humanize such a strange, even threatening (at least to secular liberal tastes) world is an unexpectedly powerful, not to mention encouragingly positive, cultural sign.
Much is made of how North America and Western Europe are becoming increasingly polarized – culturally, politically, spiritually. In this kind of environment, support structures break down, communication becomes difficult and defense grows more important than reaching out. Cultures, institutions or persons that are classified as an ‘other’ and seen as too threatening to even touch.
And the papacy is threatening. Its positions diverge strongly from the contemporary liberal consensus, and it has influence across the planet. Some describe it as an institution that has to be overcome in order to make a better world. None of that’s softened in The New Pope and this is part of what makes it so thrilling.
Because even with the absurdity and the teenage drama and the occasionally hollow pontificating, this’s still an attempt to bring together voices that are usually sealed off in separate echo chambers. And while we may complain (rightly) about the show’s fuzzy ideas, its focus on the relationships between otherwise controversial figures may be what allows The New Pope to transcend our noisy culture war and become a point of genuine connection between the trenches. Priests, nuns, cardinals and even popes are given space on screen to be human without being forced to deny why they are or what they stand for. That doesn’t happen every day.
This isn’t the show we need, but it’s a frighteningly encouraging sign that we’re on the way there. And in spite of being repulsed by parts of Sorrentino’s vision, maybe we’ll get there faster by learning from it.
The New and Young Pope aren’t the only examples of recent shows or films that offer flawed, complex depictions of the clergy. Stay tuned for part two in this series, where we’ll be exploring one of 2019’s most critically lauded comedies.
An abridged version of this article appeared in Convivium Magazine.
Josh Nadeau is based in Russia and, when not writing or teaching, may be found winter cycling, hitchhiking or engaged in general shenanigans. He hopes, when he’s older, to maintain a sense of awe.