New Pope, new hope JOHN SEMLEY

The Globe and Mail (Alberta Edition) - - NEWS -

Pro­duced in con­junc­tion with the Vat­i­can, this Wim Wen­ders doc is a mix of ad­mir­ing por­trait and straight-up church pro­pa­ganda

Pope Fran­cis – A Man of His Word CLAS­SI­FI­CA­TION: PG; 96 MIN­UTES Di­rected by Wim Wen­ders

The theme of the 2018 Met Gala – that an­nual fundrais­ing pageant of celebrity and car­toon­ish high-fash­ion cos­tum­ing – was Heav­enly Bod­ies: Fash­ion and the Catholic Imag­i­na­tion. Watch­ing Lana Del Rey stroll the red car­pet dressed as Our Lady of Sor­rows or Kim Kar­dashian pose for the pa­parazzi in a metal­lic dress stud­ded with lav­ish bi­jou crosses or Ri­hanna sport­ing a jewel-en­crusted pa­pal mitre with hoop ear­rings and heels by Chris­tian (wink, wink) Louboutin was enough to make cru­ci­fix clutch­ers howl, “Blas­phemy!”

Viewed more gen­er­ously, how­ever, the Catholic-in­spired pomp wasn’t so much an haute-cou­ture black mass as a re­flec­tion on the con­spic­u­ous wealth and decadence of the church it­self, which has over two mil­len­ni­ums swelled into op­u­lence and ir­rel­e­vance, ef­fec­tively be­tray­ing the teach­ings and mis­sion of Je­sus Christ. To para­phrase the church’s lat­est, self-styled rad­i­cal leader: Wher­ever there is wealth, there is no Je­sus.

Pope Fran­cis – A Man of His Word is an odd doc­u­men­tary – a kind of au­dio-vis­ual pa­pal en­cycli­cal. Pro­duced in con­junc­tion with the Vat­i­can and writ­ten and di­rected by Ger­man New Wa­ver Wim Wen­ders, it’s a mix of ad­mir­ing por­trait and straight-up church pro­pa­ganda. As with many peo­ple who have come to ad­mire the 266th pope (this re­viewer in­cluded), Wen­ders ex­hibits an ob­vi­ous, and rather sin­cere, rev­er­ence for Fran­cis’s en­vi­ron­men­tal­ism, his anti-cap­i­tal­ism and his com­mit­ment to re­boot the church with a more as­cetic pro­gram of mis­sion­ary good­will. (In this sense, he re­calls the rad­i­cal­ism of his name­sake, St. Fran­cis of As­sisi, whose own break from church tra­di­tion Wen­ders re-en­acts in a fit­tingly se­vere style re­call­ing the canon of cin­e­matic spir­i­tu­al­ists such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bres­son.)

It says some­thing of Fran­cis that he seems most gen­uinely at ease when he is among the poor, the ail­ing and the im­pris­oned, at­tend­ing to the truly less for­tu­nate, whose suf­fer­ing con­sti­tutes the spir­i­tual bedrock of Chris­tian­ity. Through­out the film, he says all the right things – about the place of women in the church, about ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity, about the end of armed con­flict, about the ex­cru­ci­at­ing de­base­ment of the church’s child sex scan­dals, about the need for a sense of hu­mour. Watch­ing him smile and wave and ad­dress the U.S. Congress (who ap­plaud him like trained seals, de­spite their con­tempt for pretty much ev­ery­thing he says and stands for), one wants, des­per­ately, to be­lieve that this guy is on the right side of his­tory – a cham­pion of hu­man­ity, a good pope. But therein lies the para­dox that A Man of His Word can, by its very na­ture, never rec­on­cile.

To the non-be­liever, the Pope’s priv­i­leged, di­vinely de­rived claim to the wis­dom of God seems ab­surd. Even if he wields his author­ity for good, that author­ity is it­self un­jus­ti­fi­able. Prais­ing a pope for be­ing de­cent is like prais­ing the prof­i­teer­ing CEO who ex­ploits his em­ploy­ees’ labour while of­fer­ing them a range of fun break­fast ce­re­als, gra­nola bars and Keurig pods in the pol­ished steel kitch­enette. The in­sti­tu­tion of the church is cor­rupt, even if its ex­ecu­tor seems like a stand-up sort of guy. Watch­ing Fran­cis visit the Sec­ond and Third Worlds, where the mis­sion­ary work of the Catholic Church still ef­fects mean­ing­ful change, it be­comes dif­fi­cult to ar­gue against his work and his (rel­a­tively) dras­tic re­ori­en­ta­tion of the church’s val­ues. It’s in the more de­vel­oped world of over­abun­dance, where he shakes hands with Vladimir Putin and Don­ald Trump and preaches to a bored Paul Ryan, that his os­ten­si­ble good­ness poses a more sub­stan­tive prob­lem.

The co­me­dian David Cross has a bit about how, de­spite be­ing an athe­ist, he’s al­ways thrilled when peo­ple of­fer to pray for him, as their prayers of­fer in­sur­ance against his own sins and mis­deeds. Like­wise, philoso­pher Slavoj Zizek uses the ex­am­ple of Ti­betan prayer wheels, into which one places a piece of pa­per in­scribed with a prayer, al­low­ing the wheel to pray on their be­half, thus free­ing the mind to pur­sue all man­ner of ob­scene and un­chaste thoughts. Fran­cis – and, to an ex­tent, all vis­i­ble reli­gious fig­ures – of­fers a sim­i­lar sec­ond­hand so­lace. We en­joy watch­ing him pray and re­flect on wealth re­dis­tri­bu­tion and the press­ing need to save our planet be­cause it means we don’t have to. His sin­cer­ity of­fers an al­lur­ing cathar­sis, a hope-by-proxy. We don’t have to be­lieve, just as long as we can be­lieve that he be­lieves.

So where the hypocrisy, di­dac­ti­cism and in­ac­tion of pre­vi­ous popes righ­teously roused our anger and in­dig­na­tion, Fran­cis stands as a pal­lia­tive cure-all for anti-pa­pal sen­ti­ment. Like­wise, Wen­ders’s doc­u­men­tary seems to yearn to ex­cite the viewer’s pas­sion, to ig­nite a de­sire to take mean­ing­ful ac­tion against the very real so­cial prob­lems the Pope so clearly di­ag­noses.

Yet, in its (lit­er­ally) state-spon­sored ad­vo­cacy for its sub­ject’s im­age, it serves only to fur­ther quench those in­dig­nant fires. We don’t have to be­lieve in the pon­tiff’s di­vine author­ity, or even his en­cour­ag­ing mes­sage of so­cial, po­lit­i­cal and spir­i­tual up­heaval. We need only watch a 90-minute doc­u­men­tary.

In his rev­er­ent doc­u­men­tary Pope Fran­cis – A Man of His Word, Ger­man New Wave di­rec­tor Wim Wen­ders speaks with the much-ad­mired 266th Pope, who through­out the film man­ages to say all the right things.

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