Comedian Bill Maher, back in the ’90s, once joked that “even the Pope is now pop culture.” He had no idea.
The same day that The Two Popes, director Fernando Meirelles and Netflix’s fictionalized tale of a series of meetings between Pope Benedict and Pope Francis, received three Academy Awards comes the arrival of another fictionalized treatment of the modern papacy.
The New Pope, which debuted Monday night on HBO, is a sequel season to 2017’s The Young Pope, which starred Jude Law as a pontiff who was considerably younger and more American than what is typical of popes.
Once again overseen by the acclaimed Italian filmmaker Paolo Sorrentino, The New Pope keeps up the general tone of its predecessor, combining bizarre and surreal flourishes with backroom Vatican politics and intrigue. The first episode of the series, which is all we’ve seen, is hugely entertaining, although there are concerns that what’s to come will be very different structurally.
The difference, as you may have guessed, is… there’s a new pope. The previous series ended with Law’s Pope Pius XIII in a coma, and he’s going to be replaced – eventually – by John Malkovich as Pope John Paul III.
The first episode of The New Pope is hugely entertaining, although it’s likely quite different from the rest of the season because both of the lead actors are sidelined for most of it.
Instead, the season opener is based mostly around a marathon papal conclave, in which the leading candidates are the scheming Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Voiello (Silvio Orlando), and a new rival character, Cardinal Hernandez, who is also played by Orlando.
Unable to win the papacy himself, Voiello decides to install Tommaso Viglietti’s Marcelo Romollo as a puppet, but the decision backfires as the new pontiff quickly emerges as something of a Pope Francis on steroids. Named Francis II, he agrees to let migrants into the Vatican, to more strictly enforce the vow of poverty, and other reforms untenable to the Holy See’s existing power structure.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, he’s dead by hour’s end, paving the way for the inevitable ascension of the Malkovich character. This gives the episode unmistakable echoes of The Godfather: Part III, which was set against the backdrop of the real-life mysterious death of Pope John Paul I in 1978.
Throughout, The New Pope continues the aesthetic style of The Young Pope, as wild visuals and unlikely musical cues are paired with familiar Vatican iconography in a way that absolutely works. From a filmmaking standpoint, it’s much better put together than The Two Popes is.
The centerpiece of the episode is the papal conclave sequence, which looks very different from the one we saw in The Two Popes. We’re shown the priests praying, both in confession with the terrible things they’ve done, or for other things they wish to see from the church’s new era.
The entire sequence with Romollo’s disruptive reign as pope is also such a hoot that it raises concerns that the rest of the season won’t be as interesting now that he’s gone.
Law appears silently in a couple of scenes, mostly in a dream sequence and in which he’s in the coma, one of which is followed by the woman who had just given him a sponge bath pleasuring herself. Malkovich himself only appears in the episode briefly; after a couple of seasons of doing a Russian accent on Billions, he’s said to be played a Brit this time.
The show’s creator, Paolo Sorrentino, is one of the leading lights of Italian cinema, best known for Il Divo and The Great Beauty, as well as the English-language films This Must Be the Place and Youth. His most recent film was last year’s raucous Loro, a treatment of the administration of longtime Italian politician Silvio Berlusconi that focused on the way his sycophants relate to him and maneuver into his circle. It’s a conceit that I’d love to see serve as the template for a future biopic of President Donald Trump.
But in the meantime, The New Pope, while likely not as meme-able as its predecessor, is off to a blessed start.