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Film Review: ‘Pope Francis: A Man of His Word’

Wim Wenders' laudatory documentary obtains impressive access to Pope Francis, even if the man beneath the mitre remains out of reach.

Pope Francis.

1 hour 36 minutes

As both a fiction filmmaker and a documentarian, Wim Wenders has always been more concerned with the journeys of individuals than the systems and institutions in which those journeys are made. In his Palme d’Or winner “Paris, Texas,” Wenders tackled themes ranging from urbanization to the breakdown of the Western family, but his focus remained trained on one highly specific road-trip. His 1999 documentary “The Buena Vista Social Club” offered an invaluable glimpse at Cuba during the embargo, but only through the lens of individual musicians. That tendency provides for both the greatest strengths and the greatest weaknesses in his Cannes premiere, “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.” Beautifully shot and edited, Wenders’ latest nonetheless features his highest-profile documentary subject yet, and the film should attract substantial worldwide attention, especially in Latin America.

Granted access to the pontiff in several sit-down interview segments — staged Errol Morris-style, with Francis staring directly into the camera and largely speaking in his native Spanish — as well as some up-close coverage of his trips to everything from a Brazilian street mass to a Central African Republic children’s hospital, a Philadelphia prison, a Greek migrant camp, the UN, a joint session of Congress, and a Jerusalem Holocaust remembrance ceremony, “Pope Francis” allows as intimate a glimpse at the spiritual leader as a film crew is likely to get. We see him looking entirely at ease with the director’s questioning, and get a pope’s-eye view of the masses of cheering faithful as the papal motorcade goes speeding by, as well as a startlingly intimate shot of Francis as he takes in Rio’s Christ the Redeemer statue from the window of a helicopter.

And yet, aside from a brief bit of archival footage depicting the Argentine clergyman then known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio preaching in the 1990s, we don’t get any full sense of the man beneath the mitre, nor his life prior to the papacy. In a sense, this is inevitable: to become the head of the Catholic Church means to voluntarily subsume one’s personal identity to that role. But few popes in living memory have seemed as recognizably human as Francis — for all its access, and for all the inherent empathy of its director, Wenders’ film is never able to completely connect the dots between the man and the figure.

Selected as pope in 2013, Francis’ ascension was greeted in certain circles with the same sort of enthusiasm as the man who had been elected American president just a few years earlier. Like Barack Obama, Francis represented a laundry list of firsts: the first pope from the Americas, the first Jesuit pope, and the first pope of his name, taken from St. Francis of Assisi. Like Obama, he came into power with the aura of a reformer and a relative outsider, even though both men previously attained high positions within their respective orders. And like Obama, his arrival was cause for great optimism among many progressives, especially in contrast to his predecessor, the unabashedly conservative Benedict XVI, who became the first pope to voluntarily resign since 1294, and whose name goes virtually unmentioned in this film.

But for liberal Catholics and progressives in general, Francis presents a quandary. Does his undeniable impact in turning the Church’s public focus to issues of global poverty and migrants’ rights, not to mention his use of the position to advocate for environmental causes or his papal subtweeting of Donald Trump, make him a valuable ally? Do his less progressive attitudes toward social issues like homosexuality and feminism make him simply a gentler vessel for the same old hard line? And, when given such a massive, slow-steering vessel as the Catholic Church, how much change can reasonably be expected of a single man?

Wenders’ film rarely addresses these issues head-on, opting instead to present its subject in a series of sympathetic dialogues and travelogues. It’s hard to forget that the Vatican itself initiated the project, but Wenders’ affection for his subject is nonetheless obvious and genuine, and as soft as his focus is, the film only occasionally lapses into outright hagiography.

Wenders is clearly intrigued by the connection between Francis and his namesake saint, opening the film with a gorgeous time-lapse shot of the Umbrian village of Asissi, and even recounting the life of St. Francis in recurring black-and-white vignettes. (These wordless reenactments, shot on a hand-cranked 1920s Debrie camera and styled to look like lost Carl Theodore Dryer footage, represent the film’s most daring and least-successful flourishes, often verging on kitsch.) Eschewing strict chronology, “Pope Francis” is organized by topic, with most of the early-going devoted to the issue that seems closest to his heart: poverty. Francis vows to create “a poor church for the poor,” and makes such symbolic gestures as rejecting the official papal residence in the Apostolic Palace for a more modest Vatican dwelling, washing the feet of prison inmates, and arriving to meet with heads of state in a tiny electric car.

As Francis addresses a crowd in La Paz, we see his voice rise to something resembling a shout as he advocates for employment as a human right, resembling a fiery labor leader as much as a clergyman. It’s here — as well as during discussion of his controversial 2015 encyclical “Laudato si,” which indicted industry and consumerism for turning the world into “an immense pile of filth” — that Francis’ potential to use his position as a vehicle for social change seems most encouraging.

In other areas, less so. When asked by a journalist to share his views on “the gay lobby,” Francis replies that if a gay man is to live his life righteously, “who am I to judge him? No one should be marginalized for this.” Compared to the language used by some of his predecessors, it’s hard not to consider this a significant improvement. But his response is hardly a detailed one: Both empathetic and noncommittal, it’s essentially the papal equivalent of a shrug emoji. When pressed on the issue of sexual abuse within the Church, Francis gets a bit more specific, saying that “a priest who does this betrays the body of the Lord,” and noting that the Church must support civil courts in rectifying these wrongs. Whether these words adequately match his deeds is left to the viewer to decide.

As laudatory as Wenders’ overall tone may be, there are moments where some quieter directorial commentary is easy to infer. In one early scene, the camera captures Francis addressing a circle of cardinals at the Vatican. Echoing St. Francis’ dictum, “It is not fitting when in God’s service to have a gloomy face or a chilling look,” Francis exhorts his audience on the need for cheerful stewardship and against the dangers of “spiritual Alzheimer’s” as the camera lingers on one ashen, unsmiling visage after another. The matter of how Francis’ style has been received within the Church hierarchy remains conspicuously absent elsewhere.

All the same, it’s difficult not to be charmed by Francis’ plainspoken demeanor, and his ability to retain the folksy conversational style of a simple parish priest even when speaking from the impossibly elevated confines of the Holy See. He has a surprising sense of humor. He’s more likely to cite Dostoevsky than Deuteronomy, yet he always speaks simply and comprehensibly. When shown footage of African refugees hurling themselves into sea off of crowded boats, his response is clearly one of genuine horror, rather than the performative grief of an authority figure straining to signify concern. Considering how at ease Francis seems with the documentarian’s spotlight, and how refreshingly direct he’s been in the past, one can’t help but wish Wenders’ questions probed deeper into this thoughtful, unexpectedly forthcoming man, and the often opaque organization for which he speaks.

Film Review: 'Pope Francis: A Man of His Word'

Reviewed at Dick Clark screening room, Santa Monica, May 8, 2018. (In Cannes Film Festival.)

Production: A Focus Features presentation in association with the Palindrome of a CTV - Centro Televiso Vaticano, Celestes Images, Solares Fondazione Delle Arti, Neue Road Movies, Decia Films, Fondazione Solares Suisse, PTS Art's Factory production. Produced by Wim Wenders, David Rossier, Samanta Gandolfi Branca, Alessandro Lo Monaco, Andrea Gambetta.

Crew: Directed by Wim Wenders. Screenplay: Wenders, David Rossier. Camera, Lisa Renzler. Editor: Maxine Goedicke. Music: Laurent Petigand.

With: Pope Francis.

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