Anyone who was captivated by Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope will be relieved that his follow-up, The New Pope, is just as rich and ravishing and gloriously enigmatic. It provides another deep dive into the hidden world of the Vatican City, marvelling at its mystique with agnostic fervour. The Venice film festival screened two episodes of the forthcoming eight-part series, each preceded by an abridged summary of what went before. But even in this bowdlerised form, it looks splendid, like Michelangelo’s Pietà, which is scarred by a terrorist bomb at the top of episode seven.
The New Pope (a co-production by Sky Atlantic, HBO and Canal+) picks up where The Young Pope left off, with Pius XIII (Jude Law) in a coma and the Holy See scurrying to come up with a replacement. The most viable candidate is Sir John Brannox (beautifully embodied by John Malkovich), an intellectual English aristo renowned for a theological text, The Middle Way, that he wrote in his youth. On arriving at his stately pile, with its shades of Brideshead Revisited, the Catholic delegates are drawn into a realm that is almost as arcane and thick with secrets as the one they’ve left behind in Rome. Brannox lounges at its centre, apparently all-knowing and all-seeing. “He’s persuasive, seductive. He envelops you,” remarks the Holy See’s marketing chief Sofia (Cécile de France). “The man seems to be made of velvet.”
As with the man, so with the series. Sorrentino possesses style to burn and elegance to squander. The New Pope loops and darts from one gorgeous set piece to the next, whether it’s a religious tableau set to haunting dance music or a nocturnal stroll through a wintry Venice. The whole thing is so immaculate that it risks holding the viewer at arm’s length. But then the director will gently lance us with a moment of emotional truth, drawing our attention to the pensive old cardinal who was abused as a boy, or the emaciated child in the bed of a supposedly cursed house. Sorrentino’s grand mansion contains many doors. Crucially, we are made to feel that behind each is a story that would merit its own standalone drama.
Pope Pius XIII maybe mouldering in the hospital but his presence walks the corridors of this show. Law appears in ghostly form, laying a consoling hand on a shoulder or parading in Speedos on the beach at the Lido. (Sorrentino has always relished juggling the profound with the profane.) It’s good to have him back, but on the evidence of two episodes, I’m more taken with the new arrival. Malkovich plays delicate Brannox with a purring, campy charisma; resplendent in a purple suit, a smudge of mascara beneath watchful eyes. When he’s not reclining on the chaises longues, Brannox likes sitting upright on a stool, caressing his harp. Plop him on a toadstool and pass the man a hookah. He’d be a dead ringer for the caterpillar out of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland.
•The New Pope screened at the Venice film festival; it will be broadcast on HBO in the US and Sky Atlantic in the UK