Under the Habit: Sex and Mystery in Sorrentino’s ‘The New Pope’

In Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope and The New Pope — his Papal Cinematic Universe, if you will — sexuality and the innermost mysteries of the Catholic church are tightly intertwined. Institutional repression of sexual desire and the inevitable sublimation of that desire are only the starting point for the shows’ analyses of ecclesiastical sexuality. From the blood-red labial folds of Pius XIII’s papal regalia to The New Pope’s stark juxtaposition of glory holes and confessionals, Sorrentino’s shows explore the ways in which sex and the absence of sex shape our lives.They explore the fundamental connection between the church’s idea of mystery, of the unknown, and our attitudes toward sexual love and touch.

Both shows approach this material with iconoclastic creativity leavened by a sober awareness of the widespread ecclesiastical pedophilia which has defined the church’s place in the 21st century. The predators lurking at the heart of the church touch virtually every thread of the shows’ storylines. Pius XIII’s in-house prosecution of serial child rapist Archbishop Kurtwell (Guy Boyd) anchors The Young Pope’s dramatic arc. In The New Pope, John Paul III (John Malkovich) calls the sexual abuse of children by pedophile priests a “derangement of love” and ponders opening another outlet for frustrated clergy by allowing them to marry. By doing so he acknowledges the psychosexual pressure cooker that is clerical celibacy and the sexual power of a visible, institutional rejection of sex.

The New Pope

Sex and Other Sacraments

“You construct elaborate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.” Barbara Kruger’s famous quote about male intimacy and repression may get substantial exercise as a meme format, but it remains a load-bearing truth of Western culture. Armies, sports teams, police forces, clerical orders, and other organized social groups ritualize masculine life and behavior while fostering homosocial environments, permitting a certain intimacy between those men even as they rigidly curtail forms of intimacy outside their confines. Think of the ass-slapping and casual nudity of the locker room, where practices which would immediately find vicious homophobic pushback in the outside world are a matter of course. 

In The Young Pope, Pius XIII ends his despotic address to the college of cardinals by extending a red-slippered foot as his attendants part his robes to reveal their satiny crimson lining. One by one his spiritual father and mentor, his chief rival within the church’s hierarchy, his boyhood friend, and the rest of the curia queue to kneel and press their lips against his shoe. It’s a textbook ritual of sexualized humiliation. Earlier in that same episode, his heartbreaking words about loving God because he can’t bear the pain of loving his fellow human beings leads his scheming secretary of state, Angelo Voiello (Silvio Orlando), to beg his forgiveness, literally groveling at the pope’s feet. Pius XIII kicks him away in disgust. Only within the context of ritual is this gesture of submission tolerable. 

The New Pope

In The New Pope, in the softly lit gloom of the Apostolic palace’s undercroft, Cardinal Bernardo Gutierrez (Javier Cámara) confesses his sexual relations with a young lover to Pope John Paul III. Intercut with Gutierrez’s confession is a scene in which Sofia Dubois (Cécile de France), head of Vatican publicity, kneels in the nude to fellate her husband through a hole in a padded wall. The expression of sexual desire through a separating membrane confers a kind of deniability on both acts even as it plumbs their function as expressions of vulnerability. The baring of our sordid natures, the unconditional acceptance of our uncleanness by an obscured figure in whom we’ve placed our trust. 

The church’s positioning of sex at a remove has the same effect as the concealment of the priest’s face from the supplicant during confession: that which goes unseen inevitably comes to dominate our thoughts. Thus the androgynous effect of the cassock, the meticulous de-sexualization of the priest’s body through clothing, jewelry, and the very architecture of churches themselves in which, at the pulpit, the priest is hidden from the waist down. The farther the church moves away from sexuality, the more sexuality dominates its rites and practices. In one scene, set to LMFAO’s “Sexy and I Know It,” Pius XIII dons his full papal regalia. Sorrentino uses his anarchic soundtrack to make explicit the infinitesimal space between the immaculate and the defiled.

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The New Pope

Immaculate Ecstasy

The miracle performed by Pius XIII on behalf of the infertile Esther (Ludivine Sagnier) is an important plot point in both shows. After the pope prays on her behalf while watching her husband fuck her against their front door, Esther becomes pregnant. It is heavily implied that conception occurs during Pius’s prayer, and ecstatic visions of Esther as the pregnant Madonna and Esther kneeling in front of the pope, his gloved hand on her bare shoulder, and sighing in sexual release as her hair falls across her face are intercut with the scene. Lewd reality and the purity of faith are revealed as inextricably connected.

In a later episode, Cardinal Andrew Dussolier (Scott Shepherd) engages in a passionate threesome with his two Honduran lovers. Their glistening bodies twist and grind in shifting configurations. Their faces contort in the grip of climax. Afterward, Dussolier draws the sheets over their entangled forms and murmurs, “Let us pray.” He is not veiling his sin but drawing it into the mystery of his faith. He trusts God with his transgressions as Sofia’s husband trusts her teeth around his cock, as Gutierrez trusts John Paul III with his confession. He lays his impurity in divinity’s lap. Catholicism is a religion of veils, of barriers, of hidden places and locked rooms. Sorrentino’s shows pull back the curtain just enough to let us see the shadows moving on the walls, the wet darkness of an unshaven armpit, the slow flexion of muscles under sweat-slick skin. God, here, is a hole in the wall and a pair of parted lips waiting beyond it.