In Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, an associate says the pope has risen from Argentinian priest to Vatican leader to international icon because he is “the kind of person who speaks to everyone.”
In Wim Wenders’ new documentary, he speaks directly to you. Or that’s the feeling anyway. Wenders follows the pope around the world (including a stop in Philadelphia for the 2015 World Meeting of Families and a visit to the Curran-Fromhold Correctional Facility), but punctuates that globe-trotting with some riveting close-ups of Francis staring into the camera (or is it your soul?) and offering spiritual guidance.
He’s a persuasive fellow. After listening to him speak of mankind’s obligation (and each individual’s duty) to end the exploitation of Mother Earth, coupled with Wenders’ footage of the gigantic ocean garbage gyre, I felt my plastic Diet Coke bottle scalding my hand.
Wenders seems most moved by the pope’s description of Mother Earth as “plundered” and “abused,” and much of the movie focuses on “ecological damage,” borne most heavily by the poor – poverty being the other subject most discussed in the film.
A Man of His Word, though, is not a lecture. It conveys the pope’s concerns, certainly, but it also conveys his charm — his gentle, personal manner, his sense of humor (he quotes from the St. Thomas More joke book), his “charisma.”
This derives from his deferential manner. Francis describes himself as “an apostle of the ear,” and says it is his role to be a humble listener. His deeds match his words. Wenders’ camera finds him among the poor in many regions of the world (Buenos Aires, the hurricane-ravaged Philippines, Curran-Fromhold Correctional), listening and washing feet.
The pope counsels against proselytizing, but he does show skill in the art of persuasion. His arguments for better stewardship of the environment, drawn from his encyclical “Care for Our Common House,” are as reasonable as they are passionate. He links this stewardship with a call for an abatement of consumerism, and sets himself as an example – eschewing papal pomp for a modest apartment, choosing the humble garb of a parish priest.
The pope has changed the image of the Church not by making substantial revisions to doctrine, but by changing priorities – directing spiritual resources to ecology, poverty, inequality. When the question of homosexuality comes up (during interface with the press corps), we hear his famous answer, “Who am I to judge.?”
We wonder if Wenders, too, has made choices about priorities. When the pope talks about the “culture of waste” as he has in other settings, he’s linking it to his fierce opposition to abortion, a topic that remains off camera here. Did it come up? Wenders did ask the pope about the Church’s sex abuse scandals, and gets a response.
Still, we sense that Wenders uses his close-ups of Francis fairly and efficiently. And sparingly, so the footage retains its power. Less engaging is the black-and-white (shot on vintage cameras) film within a film, recounting the life of St. Francis of Assisi, the pope’s namesake and inspiration. There is scant biography of the pope, and a little too much of St. Francis, so while the movie is not a sermon, there are moments that leave you fidgeting in your pew.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
- Directed by Wim Wenders. With Pope Francis. Distributed by Focus Features.
- Parents guide: Not rated
- Running time: 1 hour, 36 mins.
- Playing at: Ritz East