But Pius’ affection towards Esther is more filial than romantic. Ludivine Sagnier bears a passing resemblance to Olivia Macklin, who we’ve seen as Lenny’s mother in a couple brief flashbacks. And when he fainted into her arms in his office, they recreated the Pietà image, of the Virgin Mary holding her son. As Pius noted to Msgr. Gutierrez in front of Michelangelo’s statue, this is what it all comes back to. The Church, as Voiello put it, is female, but it is a mother, not a lover to Lenny Belardo.
The Church is what replaced Lenny’s absent mother, not Sister Mary, who directed him not to call her “Ma” when they first met. Mary the nun and papal assistant is herself all but absent for this episode, but Mary the Blessed Virgin Mother is all over it. Presence in absence again.
We start in a field near an ancient aqueduct, people have gathered to see Tonino Pettola (Franco Pinelli) bearing wounds on his hands. He approaches a sheep, saying it is not actually a sheep; he sees a vision of the Madonna, and by witnessing his vision the crowd believes they might be healed.
After the opening sequence, Pius is administering communion to his assistants when Sister Suree (Nadee Kammellaweera) breaks down crying. Her sister in Sri Lanka is dying. She confesses that she would not want to return home for the funeral, because seeing her home brings up doubts in her mind, and she does not want to doubt. Pius tells her she’s not the only one who doubts, but her hearing aid is failing, and she can’t be sure of what he’s said.
Voiello prays for the wisdom to distinguish between his own vindictive nature and divine guidance which will help save the Church from Pius’ extremism. Fr. Amatucci brings in Esther, and Voiello tells her that he knows about her indiscretions with Fr. Valente (Ignazio Oliva), one of the Pope’s assistants. He will keep her secret, but only if she does him a favor in return. In a chapel, Esther prays to understand the domino effects of sin.
By a quiet reflecting pool, Pius tells Esther that she reminds him of his first and only girlfriend, but more beautiful. He can tell that mention of her beauty makes her uncomfortable, but tells her that it’s a gift from God, wh
ich one should be neither embarrassed nor proud of. She does not rejoice in her beauty, nor does she let her husband rejoice in it, feeling ashamed of it. Pius has seen her roller-skating with the children of the other Swiss Guards, but he doesn’t think she’s in it for the skating. She plays with the children to replace the child she cannot have, as she and her husband are both infertile. He tells her to pray to St. Mary, who will know what to do.
Meanwhile, Voiello and Amatucci are spying on the two; Amatucci is a proficient lip-reader, it seems.
Sister Suree tells Pius her sister has died. She asks permission to go to Sri Lanka, but he tells her you shouldn’t go chasing the dead, or else they’ll chase after you. Ironic, since that seems to be what he’s doing with his parents, even if they might not be literally dead.
Pius baptizes a procession of Roman infants — an obligation of his office he can’t beg out of. As each family approaches, he near-mindlessly repeats the same empty words: “she takes after you”. Even when the child is clearly an African adoptee, though he covers with some bland excuse about the moral rather than literal truth of it. Esther watches from the side of the chapel.
Pius catches Sofia applying her lipstick in his bathroom, and takes her to observe a gathering in secret. Voiello is discussing his favorite Napoli footballers with the Prime Minister of Greenland (Carolina Carlsson), while her openly gay assistant is surrounded by an admiring claque of priests. Pius expresses dismay at their evident if unspoken homosexuality.
During the Pope’s audience with the Prime Minister, he is superficially diplomatic. They present him with an enormous halibut, and a recording of the 2004 single “Senza un perchè” — “without a reason” — by the Italian singer Nada, evidently popular in Greenland. He notes that despite the small size of the Catholic community in Nuuk as compared to the Lutheran majority, the history of Christianity in the country extends long before the Reformation. He likens Greenlandic Catholics to Native Americans, pointedly ignoring the long history of Paleo-Eskimo habitation. He then pivots to ask what’s under all the ice that never thaws, positing that God might be under there; presence in inaccessible absence again.
They then listen to the song, which continues through a scene where a crate bearing the papal insignia is loaded onto a container ship.
Pius walks through the gardens, praying the Ave Maria. He passes behind Esther’s house, where she sits praying in her inflatable pool, and for a moment their prayers sync up.
A helicopter arrives, carrying the crate from the previous scene. Workers unload a coffin; Sister Suree’s sister’s body.
As Pius and Esther follow the procession from the helipad, they pass the reproduction of the Grotto of Lourdes, still under renovation. Esther asks that he teach her how to pray. They kneel before the grotto, and she starts by asking Mary to give her a child. Pius corrects her: prayer is not a list of requests, but a process of reflection and listening so God — or in the present case the Madonna of Lourdes — can whisper thoughts. She prays that making a gift of her beauty might allow her to receive the beauty of a child, but worries to the Pope that she finds it a burden to make such a gift to her husband, whom she does not love. She begins to offer herself to Pius, but he cuts her off, redirecting her towards her husband.
At the requiem mass for her sister, Sister Suree falls over the coffin, weeping. Pius chastises her: “believers don’t cry.” He says it’s time we stopped crying at funerals. And while I see the justification for his position, he seems cruel to deliver it so thunderously to a woman in mourning.
Cardinal Voiello tries to make nice with Pius. He presses the Pope on his speech to the College of Cardinals and is rebuffed; then on the matter of Archbishop Kurtwell, which Pius agrees to discuss, but from a broader point of view. Voiello leaps at the idea of pursuing all allegations of pedophilia, but Pius proposes a purge of homosexuals in the clergy, forgiving them, but then removing them all from their positions, even if that meant losing two-thirds of all priests worldwide. Voiello protests that homosexuality and pedophilia are vastly different things, but Pius maintains his position.
And then he pivots to ask Voiello about his call to the ministry. The cardinal, momentarily off balance, admits that there was no blinding illumination or moment of conversion. He simply recognized a predisposition to the priesthood, as another might have one to be a painter, or a cricket player. He turns the question back on Pius, despite likely knowing what the Pope said about falling into his vocation for lack of any better ideas, but there is no response.
Esther returns to her house, only to find Voiello waiting in the shadows. He presses her on his request that she seduce Pius, which she tried and failed to do at the Grotto. He pushes her on this point, but despite having sinned in her affair she doesn’t want to repeat that mistake. He tells her that the Pope is dangerous, and must be brought under control. And moreover, he lies, Lenny had had dozens of girlfriends over the years. She suggests speaking to Pius rather than seducing him; he respects her. Voiello says he doubts the Pope even respects God, and reiterates his blackmail.
Tonino, the supposedly-stigmatic shepherd goes on an Italian talk show, begging the Church to recognize his miraculous visions. The faithful are already flocking to him and being healed from heart disease and meniscus tears. He doesn’t want to have to start his own church, or so he says.
Pius sees the interview, then takes a walk through the gardens at night. He again sights the kangaroo and tells it to jump, but it demurs.
Don Tommaso tells him about an odd development: over the last few hours, people have started confessing wild exploits with women, offering up intimate, embarrassing details. Pius says it sounds like someone is spreading a rumor that he is out to punish the homosexuals.
Voiello tells his disabled ward, Girolamo, that Esther had said she wanted not to sin any more. He has heard that a lot, and everyone means it, but they don’t understand how impossible it is. “Up until the last day we are able to think,” he says, “we are condemned to go on sinning.” But he sees in Girolamo an exception. He loves this boy — not in any prurient sense, mind you — because Girolamo is the one person the cardinal knows who is truly innocent, following the false etymology that confounds knowledge, noscere, and harm, nocere. He has no knowledge of sin, because he has no knowledge of anything at all.
Returning from his meeting with Don Tommaso, Pius passes Esther and Peter’s house, where he sees them having sex up against the kitchen window. We see a vision — maybe his, but I think Esther’s — of her naked body next to him in his papal vestments. In reality, Pius falls to his knees and prays to Mary, this time begging her as the successor of St. Peter to grant the couple a child. His prayer takes on a desperate, breathy quality, resonating with Peter and Esther’s panting from inside the house. As the couple finish up, Esther sees Pius outside the window, looking back at her.
The next day, Pius and Msgr. Gutierrez look in on a hall of nuns taking their afternoon nap. Pius asks Gutierrez to go to New York to head up the Kurtwell investigation. The monsignor protests that he’s never been outside the Vatican, and has no idea how to operate in the real world. But the Pope reassures him that he was afraid, too, before he “gave into the complex and unfathomable architecture that God had designed for him.”
Gutierrez prays on the matter, and receives another vision of Mary, in the same place where he was first thunderstruck by his call to service. “The boy has become a man,” she says to him in his native Spanish. Her sky-blue robe and white veil glide across the floor. Pius walks through the hall full of nuns, each now looking through pictures of their former lives as the evening sun through the window begins to fade across the floor.
In his quarters, Pius listens again to “Senza un perchè”. Someone shoots off bottle rockets in St. Peter’s Square outside his window. A woman dances in a dimly-lit hall as first some information about Greenland, and then the closing credits flash on the screen.