Choreographed nuns sway 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’s, in all likelihood, a hit job. 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 airs this month. Like most of his work, The New Pope proves as concerned with sin and loneliness as it is with grace and redemption.
This, despite the title, is nothing new. In fact, the series is a direct follow up to 2016’s The Young Pope. In it, Jude Law played the eponymous Pius XIII, a startlingly conservative cardinal elected to the papacy who advocates 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 John Paul III in the second.
John Paul III is elected for his dedication to ‘the middle way,’ a moderate corrective to the flashy policies of Pius XIII – the series, however, is anything but moderate. Its themes (and characters) embrace dramatic highs and lows, as does the show’s quality. It makes for a mixed viewing experience, but there are more than enough solid moments sprinkled among the disappointing ones to keep one’s attention.
The biggest disappointment, though, is the show’s lack of religious literacy. For all its interest in the trappings and emotional legacy of Roman Catholicism, the show proves deeply ambivalent about its moral and philosophical underpinnings.
In many ways, it’s reminiscent of Netflix’s recent, Oscar-nominated The Two Popes. Both feature long conversations where high-ranking members of the Church seem to lack a basic knowledge of Christian dogma. They fearlessly dive into, and struggle with, the thornier issues that conventional Catholic dramas tend to gloss over. Their directors come from traditionally Catholic societies and bring an aesthetic that’s rarely seen in religious films.
In The New Pope, though, the lazy moments seem more gratuitous. The action sometimes comes across as an absurd tragicomedy set in an alternate-universe Vatican City. Replacing the typical struggle between virtue and vice is one between repression and self-realization – with the ability to experience pleasure as the primary indication of the latter. The camera hovers with glee over art, architecture and women’s bodies.
This is the kind of show that is easy to make when a given set of showrunners confront a world they don’t entirely understand. The New Pope can be seen as an attempt within a secular, mostly liberal, context to make sense of Catholicism, or to make Catholicism relevant by transplanting it into a philosophically foreign ecosystem.
This often leads to major distortions, which can be distressing for people of faith. It can evoke legitimate feelings of distaste, defensiveness or offense over the sense that the artists, at best, didn’t do their homework or, at worse, didn’t think any homework was necessary. What this amounts to is a work about religion where the core tenets of that religion are conspicuously absent, which means the members of a given community continue to remain misrepresented.
Talking about the concept of cultural appropriation, at least in certain circles, often generates resistance – some wonder what the problem is with engaging or reusing elements of a different culture. But this is a misunderstanding of the idea: cultural appropriation happens to a group, one that often 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 is obsessed with the history, costumes and drama of the papacy but, like many other shows and films before, it appropriates 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.” It’s another example of a story about Catholics with too little Catholicism involved.
That said, if this were a piece entitled “too little Catholicism,” it would be missing a key element. While the feeling of offense is entirely legitimate, there’s another response that’s equally so.
This is where I have to confess: there are moments in both The Young and New Pope(s) that are positively exhilarating. They are a failure in so many ways, but an incredibly moving failure.
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. Religious leaders, often publicly reduced to hypocrites or saints, allowed moments of confusion, mischief, depression and surprise. There is a palpable feeling of helplessness and horror over the crises this papacy has inherited. Everywhere, there’s an atmosphere of vitality matched by loss. There’s the raw sense that even being surrounded by this much beauty won’t insulate one from disappointment or other consequences of aging. Sorrentino’s curia is clever, deflated, inventive and lonely. Genuine delight feels possible again because there is no guarantee it will come at all.
If The New Pope’s inability to understand the spiritual basis of its subject is a failure, then its desire to humanize such a strange, even threatening, world is unexpectedly powerful. For me, it’s also a positive cultural sign.
Much is made of how North America is increasingly polarized. As this happens, support structures break down, communication becomes harder and defense can become more important than reaching out. Cultures, institutions or persons seen as ‘other’ are often classified as too threatening to associate with.
And, in many ways, the papacy is quite threatening. It has positions that diverge strongly from the contemporary liberal consensus, and it has influence in many parts of the planet. Some describe it as an institution that needs to be overcome, in order to make a better world. None of this is softened in The New Pope, and this is part of what makes it thrilling.
Because even with the absurdity, the teenage drama, and the occasionally hollow pontificating, this is still an attempt to bring together a diverse set of voices usually locked away in separate echo chambers. And while some 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.
This does not mean religious people won’t be angry while watching. I’ve sat through the six (of nine) available episodes and I’ve fumed more than once. If anyone feels misrepresented or too frustrated to continue, I support that choice.
But I also have a choice, and I choose to remain present for at least a bit longer. It means choosing to be misunderstood, perhaps for the sake of making some small contact with the world on the other side of the divide. Which is an experience quite familiar to anyone engaged in the act of cultural bridge building. And maybe, using those moments of contact, we’ll be able to continue having the difficult, humane conversations through which we might start feeling seen again (or for the first time). The New Pope, for all its failings, creates something of this kind of space.
When all’s said and done, that’s New enough for me.