The series found something close to closure when Pope Pius suffered a heart attack that plunged him into an apparently irreversible coma. At the start of this series, renamed The New Pope, Lenny’s immobile body has become the focus of a cult: one radio station broadcast the sound of his unconscious breathing round the clock to the devoted masses. Meanwhile, the leaderless church is beset by terrorist and other threats. A new pope must be found. Enter John Malkovich as Sir John Brannox, an erudite, aristocratic Englishman in cardinal’s silks who seems to have wafted in from Brideshead Revisited. Says Sofia (Cecile de France), the unfeasibly luscious Vatican marketing manager, “the man seems to be made of velvet”.
Like Lenny, Brannox strives for holiness. “I don’t think sex is really the big motivator in his life. I think he’s quite a haunted character in a lot of ways. Fragile, with a sense of the spiritual,” says Malkovich. “It’s very much an exploration, an investigation, of the sacred and the profane, of the struggle to believe and the struggle to live, really.”
Sorrentino was drawn initially to Malkovich as an actor who already had a peculiarly iconic aura. He says: “There is a movie called Being John Malkovich; there is no Being Robert de Niro or Being Meryl Streep. Then I met him. Talking to him for three, four hours I started to think that the best thing was to adapt the role to the real John Malkovich. John Malkovich in my perception is wise, ironic. He’s distant but can be warm, all things that were very, very interesting for the pope that I was looking for.”
Sorrentino’s reveries of popedom are long on bling but short on explanation; much of the dialogue is so elusive it comes across as a series of riddles. Malkovich says most of it was translated, from Sorrentino’s Italian script into English by a non-native speaker. “Then there’s the element of maybe a kind of Italianate flippancy and irony that may not be easily understood in English. My wife’s Italian and she would get very frustrated with me because of my insistence on clarity. But I think it’s just a kind of thing Paolo has. Many, many times I had to say ‘OK, but what does this mean?’ And I think that is part of his mystery. Even his Italian is as liquid as his shooting, so it’s not easily pinned.”
Sorrentino, by contrast, sees these gnostic exchanges as very much of a piece with his experience. “It’s very close to reality, actually,” he says. “My dealings with the church never took a direct, straightforward path. When we asked to shoot in the Sistine Chapel for instance, the answer was neither yes or no, it was something else we could not understand. The church is never in a hurry to give answers or to make decisions. That is how it works; that is how you become an institution that has lasted for millennia.” His story is no more Byzantine than the reality.
Sorrentino is 42. He says he made his last confession in high school. Even so, he thinks the church is still present in his imaginative life. “I think more than I like to admit. I think that’s true for all Italian people. Catholicism for an Italian is very present, even though we might not go to church,” he says. “The guilt, the sense of sin, is something deep-rooted inside us, whether or not we’re believers. It’s something in the water.”
Jude Law says he thinks that however bizarre Sorrentino’s vision – a scene in which he runs the gauntlet of a parade of bathing beauties while wearing nothing more than some minimal bathing trunks certainly sticks in the memory – it is not disrespectful.
“I think when people first heard the words ‘young pope’ and saw the casting, they thought it was going to be about debauchery and scandal,” he says. “But he sort of held a mirror up, more than anything.”
Law was daunted at first, when he tried to research Vatican history, by how much he didn’t know. “I realised I had an almost unending task in front of me and started to panic. It was Paolo who made it clear that what he really wanted me to play was the man, so I just concentrated on creating a three-dimensional human from childhood to the time you meet him.
“And what did I learn? I think really what I learned, in my heart of hearts, was that faith is a very personal thing. It can have the same name but mean different things to lots of different people.
“And I think as long as it’s not used to judge others, it’s a really beautiful thing.”
WHAT: The New Pope
WHEN: SBS On Demand
Stephanie Bunbury is a film and culture writer for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.