The New Pope – A Brief Deconstruction

Rating: 9


You will come to me and you will tell me all the suffering in the world and I will say to you, they are all hysterias of love.

John Paul III

Finishing The New Pope, having come across it on a Malkovich-inspired whim without any hype or preconception, we haven’t yet seen The Young Pope. I caught a few minutes of it once, and I guess it was a bit too catholic, a bit too dry, a bit too male. The overtones were clearly subversive, or they wanted to be, but somehow in that sample I didn’t see any of the masterful talents that I now understand are driving this beast. I’m thankful for that oversight now, having finished episode 9 and looking forward to playing the first 10 as a prequel, sometime soon. This show is too good to let go of just that fast. It’s not that it’s not too catholic, dry, or male – none of that surprised me – rather that it is less subversive than dangerously holy, righteously sexual. The New Pope doesn’t decry catholicism with the ease of pop culture dismissal. Instead, Sorrentino’s surrealist drama takes the problems of modern religion by the throat. It presents a theology of the heart as an organ that beats, alive with every kind of love. The New Pope’s God is a shadow, thrown by a neon cross, among a cloister whose faith is not in question, but steady as a nightclub banger. These nuns know how to dance, better than the boys. What is the difference between subversive fiction and a righteous depiction of holy sexuality? Well, as The New Pope asks, what is the difference between a whore and a saint? I disagree with their answer, but I love a bold, holy, rhythmic question.

Let us uncover that truth, place it on the kitchen table, and your family will grow stronger. That is who you are.

John Paul III

I write a lot of my reviews with spoilers, because I tend to read these things after seeing the film, not before. I look at the rating before watching, and nothing else. I’m the type that cuts off the trailer because everything is a spoiler if you haven’t seen it yet. I don’t know what fool decided to tack “On the Next Episode” segments to every outro, but fuck that guy, for real. Now the credits roll is a panicked balance between not wanting to miss the last frames of new content, and rushing to smash pause or ff before the Cassandra segment ruins my night… So after episode 9 I started pulling reviews in detail, like I do. I just can’t let it go, see the critics, as usual, have by and large missed the boat, and look really awkward trying to swim. The New Pope is a thoughtful, meditative, brilliantly written, acted and produced, exploration of what it means to love, specifically in the religious sense. I can handle that it won’t be everyone’s thing. But what I can’t leave without a counterpoint is that among them I found a dozen critiques of how the plot was delivered, and not a breath about what it was all trying to say.

The church must not think. It needs only to protect the fragile. Our mission is to recognize, preserve, and value fragility. That fragility which hides in the opaque cold of night, or in the crystalline cold of midday. Wherever there is fragility, there is the church. That is who we are.

John Paul III

For a show set inside the Vatican, there’s very little scripture, very little mention of Christ. These would no doubt turn off the average HBO viewer, anyway. What we get instead is an entirely fresh examination of some of the greater topics underlying both scripture and Christ. The New Pope is all about love, divinity, morality and suffering, the mystery of God and the fragility of man. It takes these subjects into present-tense discourse with the urgency of a horny arab boy who has fallen in love with a young, small-breasted catholic nun, hesitant, feverish and shy, and the literate nuance of a heroin-addicted priest, who is wise and brash enough to be pope, but terribly afraid of being a man. The subversion of the show, the draw of lithe sexuality in these nuns pole dancing on the cross, is not that it will undermine your view of the much-maligned modern church and its problems with aberrant love, but that it will sneak in, while you’re all hot with that song, and give you something beautiful about humility, and the power inherent in submission.

The problem is love.

John Paul III

Which is not to say that it doesn’t criticize the church. How can any fraternity not find homosexuality in at least some of its members? Well that’s just my thought. You separate the sexes, you weed out the hetero, not the sexuality. In any case, the order of Cardinals that apparently makes up the inner structure of the Vatican is almost as homosexual as they are homophobic. I hope some people, somewhere, were paying attention. But no doubt this is part of why the show wouldn’t be allowed to shoot inside of the real Vatican. Corruption molts in the corners, and often in the sun. The reign of Francis II, in episode 1, is practically Monty Python-esqe as it calls out the Vatican excess, greed, bribery and backstabbing. Sell the Vatican, feed the world. They aren’t wrong. Episode 2 doesn’t stop short of insinuating the real life John Paul II was assassinated, in an aside you could easily miss, early on. For most of the season you probably assumed Voiello poisoned him. In fact the only time these boys ever step in line, is when they are finally stripped of power entirely, by act of Pope, God or centipede. In fairness there are a couple priests who earn audience forgiveness before the end. Gutierrez, in particular, is a beautifully acted character. John Paul III wants to sanctify gay marriage, even for priests, and Pius actually does it, sort of, even if it does take all year. And Brannox, of course, importantly, never really answers the question. Still the unforgivable depravity of the men climaxes in an orgy with an underage whore, categorically documented by God (Bauer, that’s power with a B) and his one-eyed friend, for the purposes of blackmail and character assassination.

Passion is the eternal enemy of humility.

John Paul III

Meet Esther, the Madonna with the messiah’s child, turned whore to the gross, unwashed, the rich. She is the church, taking collections to wash the feet of the wealthy. Her character arc is a no-holds-barred embodiment of the question of what it means to give love to the unworthy. What does it mean to protect the fragile? To love your enemy, truly? The question of saints and whores becomes more clear when the saints as well aspire to worldly riches above all else. When the nuns come looking for $200 from Voiello’s assistant, he turns them away with an insult while confirming his Bentley. The power struggle of the modern feminine rising, conflicting with the corrupt, enshrined, homosexual patriarchy, runs throughout the script. It’s not that the ladies are without sin. They steal, abuse, fuck each other, even masturbate while giving the comatose Pius his sponge bath. But without the corruption of power, they are forgiven much more easily. It’s hard to hate them, if you have any sense of rhythm, anyway. The current moving underneath it all is about nurture, fragility, self-sacrifice and making room for every possible love. It is far from out of place then, the exalting of femininity throughout, of the mothering instinct and the sacrificial, procreative body of womankind.

“Every time our judgment is beclouded by the ardent passions that consume us, we give love a dangerous concreteness, a scandalous concreteness, an illegal concreteness. In short, we are causing pain. Replace that concrete love with tenderness.”

John Paul III

If the purpose ended there, I never would have bothered with this review. Corruption in itself is old news, practically so self-evident as to be uninteresting at this point in its own right. What The New Pope demonstrates, is a view of faith as unshakable despite every effort of men to make it less. Truth, when it comes, is unchanging. Everything that can be called out as forsaken is, and as different men take the reigns of power each one is revealed, their cracks showing bright with everything they are not. But hardly a character, at any point, loses their faith. The New Pope isn’t about a crumbling tower of 2000-year-old hypocrisy. That would be too obvious, pedantic. Boring. It is about the insoluble permanence of man’s divine inquiry itself, the endless beauty of mystery, of questions without answers. Drop all the religious baggage. This is a sublime, sexual rendering of the questions of love, made modern and new.

“Perhaps we cannot fully express our faith, but we can express our tenderness.”

John Paul III

I disagree that passion is the enemy. That’s a part of why I’m not buddhist. I disagree that saints and whores are the same thing, with only the caveat I described above. I disagree that there is such thing as an aberrant love, in itself. But the beauty here isn’t that The New Pope, or Catholicism itself for that matter, has all the answers. It’s that there’s a major, artistic, HBO drama out right now that is asking these questions. If the real church had half this daring, or the real pope had half the charisma of Malkovich’s Vatican mic drops, there’s still not much chance I’d sign up, but I’d totally be tuning in. A show like this is saddest when it’s over, and you realize how vacant that leadership role is in our real world. Not only is the real church falling short of sanctifying gay marriage for priests, which is practically safe ground in today’s society, but it is generally terrified of the question as if we were still in the 1500s. No leader, from the UN to the US Congress to the local Brownie troop, is giving speeches like these. Oh how we need somebody at the podium who has a damn thought of his own. How desperately we need a John Paul III in real life. Heck, give me a Francis II. When Pius returns, we get a 3-episode exploration of the differences between God and man. Power corrupts even the messiah, if only for a moment, and we get, in Jude Law’s dramatic mood swings, everything from desperation to omniscience, in one character. He smokes, he drinks cherry coke, but he knows heaven, he gives life in a whisper. He takes over even the clubbing chaos of the strip club intro, with a divine masculine stability that is, if not out of place, just not quite so rocking as it was without him. Esther goes from Madonna to whore to terrorist, presumably in an effort to finally humanize even the church’s sworn enemies, as only the radicalized arm of human spirituality, the ones tired of the monotony of devotion, of prayers unheard, demanding God’s presence with a hostage in a schoolroom. Is war an act against God? Is modern religion ready to face down the actual problems in its own rooms, and in the world? Is there a better tool to the task?


John Paul III

The New Pope rejects terrorism, but not the terrorist. He rejects pedophilia, but not the pedophile. He rejects corruption, but not the corrupted. Prostitution, but not the whore. Love, but not tenderness. You can argue the answers, but you can’t point to another show on TV this season making these distinctions – taking these risks.

John Brannox finally gives away the crown.

Sober, aware of his own limits, and in love, he comes away from the papacy, ready to play the harder role. Having revealed himself as a fraud, a failure, having given up all alias, all pretense of greatness, not even worthy of murder – he just let his brother Adam die – he is finally redeemed. He is made whole by failure. This is the arc of the season brought to completion. Not the making of a pope. The making of a man, the deconstruction of an ego, finally willing to love, and be loved. This is Sorrentino’s miracle. It’s a pity John’s dog isn’t still running the Vatican halls, a gentle beast free among the great works of art, getting mud on the perfect marble floors. That shot is one of the best in the show. It is nature, reclaiming natural mystery, not ignoring the beauty of Michelangelo, but giving it finally a long-needed breath, giving it life.

Pius XIII dies, as strangely as he came, but without the 415-sigh countdown, and I’m not really sure why. I don’t like that Voiello gets the robe. His redemption is awesome, well acted and written, clearly brought on by his removal from power, and so the reversal of that power move is a bit swift, and at best bittersweet. It’s unsettling that the show ends without villains. Bauer and his cockroach friend carry on, and there is God in all things, even the centipede. We outro on, strangely, a reference to The Shining, as little Pius IV, Esther’s miracle child, bigwheels through the Vatican as if it were the Stanley Hotel. I’m not sure where he’s going with some of that, but what I do know is that Sorrentino isn’t worried about whether I get the answer. Let the pointed silence speak. We’re here to appreciate the question. And the good time girl.

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