NEW YORK -- Strolling through the Cloisters in Upper Manhattan on Wednesday, Wim Wenders paused, fixing a discernibly toxic gaze on a crystal-encrusted Viktor & Rolf evening ensemble, part of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's exhibit "Heavenly Bodies," on fashion and Roman Catholicism.
"It looks like a Christmas decoration," Wenders said, his tone deceptively resigned.
He was in New York to introduce Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, his documentary exploring the life and philosophy of the Argentine pontiff, but found time nonetheless for a detour to the museum's sprawling exhibition, which occupies several galleries at its Fifth Avenue address as well as the stone-and-stained-glass Cloisters.
Brought up Catholic, Wenders, 72, is no stranger to the church's iconography. He could clearly appreciate the beauty and witchery of the ecclesiastical vestments on loan from Rome, and not less the ultra-lavish secular interpretations by Cristobal Balenciaga, John Galliano, Olivier Theyskens and their vaunted like.
There was a time when such extravagance was intrinsic to the faith. "In the Middle Ages, people were more used to representation," Wenders said. "This spectacular way of dressing among the cardinals and bishops, the incredible Gothic architecture -- they were all a representation of man aspiring to get closer to God." For Wenders, that view has lost its relevance.
Like some of his earlier movies -- Paris Texas, The American Friend and Kings of the Road come to mind -- his documentary is, in some respects, a road movie.
The film follows Francis from prisons, refugee camps and favelas to the halls of Congress and the United Nations without losing its stringent focus on a pontiff seeking to model himself on his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, the son of a rich textile merchant who cast off his finery for mendicant's robes.
If you ask Wenders, that's a gesture worth emulating. "More than anything Pope Francis tells us that we don't have to dress up to appear before God," he said. "He tells us: 'Let's look at people. Let's not look at disguises.'"
But as we strolled beneath the vaulted archways of the Cloisters, that concept seemed distant indeed. Among the items propped high on pedestals or silhouetted against the tall windows were a gold embroidered black silk evening cloak by Maria Grazia Chiuri and Pierpaolo Piccioli of Valentino, and a scarlet ballgown lavishly embellished with black seed beads and grommets by John Galliano.
All that finery: The effect can be alienating, Wenders suggested, his voice just audible over the insistent strains of "Ave Maria" piped over the sound system. "Pope Francis said this very clearly in the film, and I want to emphasize this now, 'In a church that seeks wealth, Jesus is not there,'" he said.
Wenders himself looked fastidious, dressed with stylish austerity in a deep blue Jil Sander suit. He paused often and ruminatively as he spoke. But he was far from somber. His shirt, pristine and tieless, was a concession to expediency, he said, part of a tuxedo ensemble he wore to the movie's premiere at Cannes. "This morning I was looking for a clean shirt and this was it," he said roguishly.
He kept up the mischievous banter as we left the museum, heading in a lumbering limousine toward Wenders' next stop, a screening of his documentary in Midtown, followed by a Q&A. "We don't want to be late," he fretted. "If you make them wait, people leave."
The Vatican had approached him to make this documentary. "I think they are in the process of changing," he said. "Their way of communicating has become a little stale."
The prospect of a one-on-one with the pontiff had unnerved him, but not for long. "The way he came in and took time with everybody and didn't make a distinction between the electricians, the producer and director," he said. "He made it clear right away, 'I'm like everybody else; don't make a big fuss.'"
"He really has a powerful way of looking you in the eye," Wenders added, "a way of being entirely concentrated and present. It took all the anxiety away, that's for sure."
En route we passed a kennel near West 56th Street. Studying its sign, Wenders waxed sardonic. "Look at that, 'The world's first doggy spa,'" he said.
Before long, though, he had reverted to the topic at hand. Yes, he'd seen the footage from the recent Met Gala red carpet with its over-the-top interpretations of the exhibition's sacred and secular themes. Reviewing cellphone images of Rihanna in a towering jeweled miter and Cardi B. encased in a pearl-studded Moschino gown that showed off her baby bump, he stopped short of an indictment.
"A lot of these people are living sculptures," he said mildly. "They are sculptured with makeup and scalpels."
Wenders, an ecumenical Christian, seems to practice his own brand of evangelism. "Artifice," he said, "is a malady of our time," an ailment symptomatic of an unsound obsession with self.
"This mania to have the individual at the center of attention, it drives me crazy," he said. "It has supplanted the culture of community." Ruefully, he added, "Today it is the only culture that we have."
How might the pontiff respond? Wenders didn't have to guess. Cocking an eyebrow, he only seemed to consider the question before repeating an injunction ascribed to Francis himself.
"The carnival is over," he said.
MovieStyle on 05/25/2018
Print Headline: Francis filmmaker ponders humility amid extravagance