In February 2013, when Pope Benedict XVI stepped down due to his advancing age, the Catholic Church found itself in dire need of a friendly face to put forth, as the institution was still reeling from the sex-abuse scandals of the early ’00s. So it turned to Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio, and you can easily see why it did in Wim Wenders’ documentary profile of him. Pope Francis: A Man of His Word lacks some useful context, but if it is only the cinematic equivalent of a Sunday sermon, it should be said that this Pope knows how to give a good one.
Wenders’ documentary mixes news footage of the Pope’s travels (including the famous airplane interview in which the Pope says, “Who am I to judge?” regarding homosexuals in the Vatican) with extensive interviews with the man himself in his native Spanish as he discusses the Catholic Church’s place in the world. There are also some reenactments of the life of the pope’s spiritual namesake St. Francis of Assisi, filmed like a black-and-white silent movie, for reasons that I can’t make out.
If your ears are accustomed to the Mexican Spanish of our area, the pontiff’s heavy Argentinian accent will take some getting used to. He spends much of the early going talking about the seriousness of climate change until the movie starts to play like a Christian version of An Inconvenient Truth, which wouldn’t be the worst thing to have. However, this eventually gives way to Francis’ emphasis on the refugee crisis and the importance of extending compassion to immigrants who are fleeing violence and famine. As you see him ministering to Africans washing up on Italian islands or Syrians finding their way into Greece or prison inmates in Philadelphia, you can’t help but think that this is what real moral leadership looks like.
The papacy is inherently political, and there’s an advantage to be gained in making conciliatory efforts toward people of other faiths. Yet when this pope says that his God and the Muslim God are the same, it doesn’t feel like a politician speaking but rather someone who’s come to a carefully considered conclusion.
But the film’s narrow scope limits its power. I don’t care about the doctrinal disputes that conservative Catholics have with this pope, but hearing from some of his critics might have given us a sense of how much of a break Francis represents with his papal predecessors, ideologically and stylistically. While you can argue that the papacy is primarily an office for moral suasion, it would still be nice to see this pope’s exquisite words being translated into tangible benefits for the least fortunate of the people he visits. I know the Jesuits who taught at my high school would be interested in that, especially coming from the first Jesuit pope in history.
Nor is there a sense of the political figure that Francis cuts on the world stage. European countries are being swept by anti-immigrant white Christian movements while we’ve elected a president who opposes just about everything this pope stands for. The Vatican now stands as an unlikely bastion of liberal anti-authoritarian political thought in the Western world, and what Francis thinks of that remains a mystery. The movie doesn’t even allude to his dalliance with the Republican primary here in 2016. The film could use more personal revelations like the one near the end that the Pope daily recites St. Thomas More’s prayer for a good sense of humor. (Why, oh why, did Wenders not ask His Holiness about his former stint as a nightclub bouncer? How does a future pope go about that job?)
Still, it’s an achievement to get an agnostic like me to sit still for 96 minutes while an 81-year-old man talks about religion. The man’s humanity, eloquence, and wisdom come through in an intimate setting like this one, and how many previous popes can you think of who would readily agree to open up like this? His message of humility, charity, and stewardship of the world for the less fortunate is always welcome
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
Starring Pope Francis. Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Wim Wenders and David Rosier. Not rated.