Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
2018, NR, 96 min. Directed by Wim Wenders.
REVIEWED By Marjorie Baumgarten, Fri., May 18, 2018
Wim Wenders, the German filmmaker who has created an extensive body of work in both narrative and nonfiction modes, here answers the Vatican’s call to helm a documentary about its newest sovereign: Pope Francis. Rather than taking a straight biographical approach, the film’s dominant motif is that of the pope speaking directly to the camera about his ideas and concerns. He speaks simply but eloquently about the state of the world, and how the Gospel instructs us to address mass poverty and the devastating plunder of our planet. Pope Francis is seen by the world, as well as the Catholic hierarchy and regular churchgoers, as a reformer and something of a radical thinker with his calls to reduce consumerism and promote ecological sustainability, in addition to his less harsh but nevertheless vague pronouncements about the acceptance of homosexuality and the existence of hell. He seems to be everything anyone might want from a pope, and this commissioned film seems to be part of the PR campaign to spread that particular gospel to the world.
Prior to opening in local theatres this week, the film premiered just days ago at Cannes, and was followed up with a “making of” featurette broadcast on 60 Minutes for greater international promotion. Wenders and his ace cinematographer Lisa Rinzler follow the pope around the world, so that scenes of him speaking at massive outdoor convocations and intimate prison settings are interspersed with a half-dozen or so interviews during which Wenders does not appear to have asked terribly challenging questions. Nevertheless, Pope Francis’ slow but deliberate speaking style and direct-to-camera “pontificating” seem quite intimate and revealing. (Wenders uses Errol Morris’ interviewing technology that famously encourages the subject to make eye contact with the camera lens.) Also cut into the movie is black-and-white footage shot to look like a film from the Silent Era which shows Pope Francis’ namesake St. Francis of Assisi, whose vows of poverty and advancement of the idea of the unity of the Earth and all its resources serve as his model. It’s the only cinematic reach in the documentary, but the re-enactments don’t really amplify the movie, and instead take the viewer out of the moment. Wenders’ occasional voiceover narration also seems weak, especially due to the inevitable comparison to the distinctively expressive narration of his fellow countryman and fiction/nonfiction filmmaker Werner Herzog.
Make no mistake, time spent in the company of this pope is a soothing balm and time well spent. However, there is a sense that Wenders shies away from probing difficult subjects, and avoids the historical continuum of Pope Francis’ position in the legacy of the papacy. In that regard, Pope Francis seems less an evangelist to the world than the Bishop of Rome speaking to the choir.