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Review

Pope Francis: A Man of his Word

By Philip Martin

This article was published May 25, 2018 at 1:46 a.m.

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The man known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio before he was elected Pope is the subject of Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.

Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

88 Cast: Documentary, narrated by Wim Wenders with Pope Francis, John Kerry, Angela Merkel, Donald Trump, Melania Trump, Barack Obama, Vladimir Putin

Director: Wim Wenders

Rating: PG, for thematic material including images of suffering

Running time: 1 hour, 36 minutes

A lot of people have asked when and if Betsy West and Julie Cohen's Ruth Bader Ginsburg documentary RBG is coming to Arkansas. "I don't know" is always a good answer when it's the truth, but I suspect RBG will be here within a few weeks. It might not be here long, but it will be here.

In the meantime, there's another documentary about a robed superhero that's out now. The venerable Wim Wenders' Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a documentary in the tradition of Italy's arte povera; a progressive low-budget art movement (literally translated as "poor art") which stresses simplicity and the meaningfulness of the ordinary. Wenders means to show us Pope Francis as he moves around the world. He means to have us hear his words.

It's not that big a stretch for the director of Paris, Texas. Since Wenders' 1970s emergence as an important figure in the New German Cinema movement, which also included Werner Herzog and R.W. Fassbinder, he's demonstrated a deep and abiding interest in the spiritual (see 1987's Wings of Desire and 1999's Buena Vista Social Club), to the extent that he was awarded an honorary doctorate of theology by the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.

"[Spirituality is] driving my work," Wenders told photographer Sabine Mirlesse in 2015. "You cannot separate. I cannot say I have a professional life and apart from that I am also a spiritual person. I cannot keep that apart."

Wenders was invited to make the film by Monsignor Dario Vigano, head of the Pontifical Council for Social Communications, shortly after Francis -- born Jorge Mario Bergoglio -- was elected pope in March 2013. While Wenders was given remarkable access and the Vatican seems to have completely cooperated with the production. Much of the footage of Francis in the Vatican was shot by the church's video crew; this doesn't feel like a PR job so much as a faithful act of devotion. Wenders is obviously deeply impressed with Francis' integrity and warmth of spirit. It's difficult to see how anyone who watches this film won't be too.

It gets off to a shaky start, for the opening moments include a silent black-and-white playlet set in the Italian town of Assisi featuring the pope's namesake, St. Francis. Coming so early, the sequence, (shot on vintage cameras like one of Guy Madden's experiments, seems to portend a slide into religious kitsch. But Wenders recovers quickly, moving on to Buenos Aires in 1989 and a black-robed bishop addressing a large crowd. This is Bergoglio, the man who would become the first pope from the Americas and the Southern Hemisphere. The first Jesuit to become pope. The first pope to take his papal name from St. Francis.

The name is significant because St. Francis famously embraced nature and joyously accepted poverty. Pope Francis has suggested that the world has been abused and depleted and that we all should "become a bit poorer" and that the church should be "a poor church for the poor." He's traded in the famous Popemobile for a Fiat. He lives in a small apartment and eschews elaborate vestments. While he hasn't radically changed the church's doctrines, he has led by example and suggested new priorities.

These ideas have not been met with universal approbation by political and religious conservatives, some of whom have suggested the pope's positions on income inequality, protecting the environment and advocating on behalf of immigrants and refugees are socialistic. But Francis is adamant: We must choose between God and money.

"Jesus tells us in the gospels," Francis says, "that no one can serve two masters."

Perhaps more than anything, the pope is committed to the idea the church should be proximate to the people, that it shouldn't be remote and mysterious but accessible and pragmatic in its ministry -- more "like a field hospital after a battle" than a judicial body. He urges priests to avoid proselytizing and to "talk little, and listen a lot."

Wenders echoes this idea by sticking close by Francis as he moves from Italy to his native Argentina, to Bolivia, from a children's hospital in the Congo to a prison in Philadelphia. But at the heart of the movie are long sessions where Francis speaks directly to the camera. For these interviews Wenders borrowed a concept from master documentarian Errol Morris, using a "Interrotron," a device Morris invented that hides the camera lens behind a projection of the interviewer's face. So rather than looking slightly off to the side to address the director asking him questions, Francis naturally leans into the camera, seemingly looking into the eyes and hearts of his audience.

MovieStyle on 05/25/2018

Print Headline: Pope Francis: A Man of his Word

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