What “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” can teach us about tolerance
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
I’ve never much liked the idea of tolerance. Who wants to be tolerated? And as a critic, I often find myself taking offense at the idea of casting judgment on the works of others. I’m not shy or retiring about offering my informed opinion about a film or the collected works of a filmmaker, but really, who am I to judge the art or the artist? I’m not capable of such efforts, but I can appraise the impact the work has on me, as a viewer.
As a person of color, I think about these things. Film matters to me, in part, because it offers necessary representations (of an infinite assortment of characters and traits) and I am constantly aware of the moving reflections I observe on screens, both large and small. I eagerly search for some glimpse that looks, in some way, shape or form,
Black is the color of my true love’s hair, so said Nina Simone, but in most cases, black doesn’t have such a favorable association. Think evil or nefarious or inferior. Those are just a smattering of the judgments we place on blackness. Who wants to be
In much the same way, who wants to be gay, lesbian, or transgender—onscreen or off? There are, of course, the stereotypes. Fashion-conscious. Hyper-fit. Highly promiscuous. But everywhere you look, there are signs that being LGBTQ is not seen as a mainstream model of “normal”.
The male gaze, commonly associated with the perspective of directors, is white and heterosexual, so we’re rarely allowed to see homosexuality as lovingly provocative. It is distasteful and thus barely seen. Lesbians enjoy more “exposure” from the male gaze, because men can appreciate the sight of two women involved in moments of passion.
Director Wim Wenders, known for his spiritually-minded approach, has waded into these earthly cultural waters in his new documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.” The filmmaker, who in “Wings of Desire” captured the agony of an angel named Damiel (Bruno Ganz) longing for the ecstasy of the human experience after an endless lifetime of watching the everyday struggle, meets his match in the form of a Pope who fearlessly embraces the challenge of walking alongside the downtrodden, while maintaining his connection with the divine.
The Pontiff locks arms and raises his voice in solidarity with the poor around the globe and comes to the defense of the planet in ways that religious figures across the faith spectrum refuse to, even when such support might actually bring their flocks together. These are the kinds of impeachable causes that would seem to be no brainers.
But what makes Pope Francis a truly revolutionary leader is, when asked about homosexuality, plainly questioned whether or not he (and by extension, we) had the right to judge who someone decides to love, the Pope zeroes in on the heart of the matter and plants a stake well-past the safety found in mere tolerance. Wenders presents the exchange, during an impromptu press gathering on a plane, allowing us to share that space, which, to my mind, seemed somehow intimate, possibly because of the nature of the question. It was leading, the query, to a certain extent, due to widely held church positions about same-sex interactions. Long considered sins, the Church often tried to negotiate a divide of sorts, where the intention was to separate “the sin and the sinner.” We have been told that we can love the sinner and hate the sin, and that the sinner could be saved by not acting on the urge. That sounds an awful lot like tolerance, right?
But by refusing to judge, Pope Francis takes us all by the hand and leads us towards a vision of humanity that earns and deserves our pride. This could be the first meaningful step towards what we might dream we could be.
Might this be the point where Hollywood could see its way to producing a movie like “Love, Simon,” which dared to feature a gay high school protagonist (Nick Robinson), caught up in his own search for love and happiness? Simon’s not the neutered best friend, the sassy supporting player without a meaningful arc of his own, who bats his eyes as his best bud stumbles his/her way to a happily ever after.
Is it perfect? Hell, no. But, in accordance with the Pope’s utterance, it shows a tentative striving to get past the default judgments of the past that would have kept a character like Simon and his yearnings, hidden from our easily wounded sensibilities. The word of Pope Francis just might lay the foundation for a desired place where we are all angels.