Pope Francis blesses a congregant
Pope Francis blesses a congregant

What is the point of an answer when no one has worked out the question? This has always seemed to me the problem with religion. Why gods, why priests, why prayer, why the upholding, at least in the Catholic church, of hyperbolic extremes of opulence and self-denial — the first for the shepherds, the second for their flock — when no one has lucidly articulated: “We cannot do without these things because . . . ” Because what?

Because we can’t work out why we are on Earth? That’s what thought and philosophy are for. Because our lives need moral guidance? That’s what moral philosophy is for, plus compassion and common sense. Because of pain and suffering? Ah, there you have the almost-question: one freighted through history with bafflement and anguish. The trouble is, religion doesn’t provide even an almost-answer.

One of the many voids in Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which spends 96 minutes intercutting urgent planetary matter (wars, natural disasters, migrations) with caring or conscientious pastoral natter (His Holiness sharing wisdoms with the camera), is the lack of any compelling response to “Why suffering?”. Wenders lets Christianity’s usual formulation pass the papal lips. God gave humans free will; it is theirs to use or abuse. That may explain war, torture, cruelty, man-made evils and deprivations. But earthquakes, floods, famines through the centuries? Disease? Cancer?

Pope Francis cuts a loveable figure. He is easy to warm to, with his Spanish lisp, his far-flung origin (first Pope from the South or the Americas) and the simple-living tropes inspired by his name-saint from Assisi. Worn walking slippers; humble Vatican apartment. We see him wash prisoners’ feet in Philadelphia. We see him mingle with plight and poverty. He intones, in Spanish with the sweetest logic, the “three Ts” of his mantra for living. Trabajo: work. Tierra: land. Techo: roof or home.

But — the big “but” — he is a Catholic and that church’s leader. Two millennia of dogma lie behind him; many a present headache lies with him. Never mind the ancestral problem of pain. He should be answerable now on Catholic paedophilia, too briskly condemned; on gay rights, kicked once more into the pastoral long grass; and on the eternal Holy See dilemma of whether to participate in politics and political debate. (Serious participation is not represented, surely, by his address to US Congress, laughably applauded by Wenders in voiceover because a few impressionable Washington old-timers shed a few tears.)

It’s a maddening film because, ultimately, it seems sycophantic to, and unchallenging of, the papal institution and Catholicism themselves. Why not question those? This, after all, is Wim Wenders. Long before the word “existential” deteriorated into a modern commonplace — meaning simply “related to survival” — Wenders made truly existentialist movies. The Goalkeeper’s Fear of the Penalty, Alice in the Cities and Paris, Texas were about freedom of choice; about self-constructed morality; about the anguish of intellectual liberty.

The word “existential” is bandied twice here by the Pope: “existential schizophrenia” and “existential void”. I have no idea what he means, nor what Wenders understands him to mean, because he seems to have fished the word from the deep, vast interim between its Old Testament use (Sartre, Camus) and its New Testament use (journo simple-mindedness). What we do know is that this film’s quest for its own simple-mindedness contains at least one instance of blatant semantic intervention.

The Pope, speaking Italian, tells Wenders that poverty and hunger are “un grido”, a cry. The subtitle translates this as “an outrage”. That is sheer editorialising. “Outrage” puts a moral clamour on a human tragedy, making it part of the political or religionist blame game. The Pope’s own use of “cry” is simpler, truer, more touching — and less arrogant in its arrogation of judgment. It speaks for the complexity and perplexity of life on Earth. Besides which: if suffering is “an outrage”, who’s to say in a believing universe, or in a faith cosmos unwilling to play the “free will” excuse card, that God, as much as humanity, should not shoulder His share of the blame?


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