Wim Wenders is an idiosyncratic—not to mention terribly uneven—filmmaker, but his approach in “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is utterly conventional, as well as deeply admiring of his subject. In fact, there’s not a discouraging word to be heard in the film, nor any uncomfortable questions asked. Still, it does provide a portrait of the world’s most important religious leader answering direct questions in a straightforward fashion, even if they’re basically softballs.
The picture falls primarily into two sections, which are juxtaposed throughout. One, narrated by Wenders (who also co-wrote the script), consists of archival footage of Francis speaking to or traveling before crowds at various locales he has visited—including prisons, homeless shelters, refugee camps, and hospitals—throughout the world, often washing the feet of prisoners and patients in a gesture of Christian humility. In one episode, he sympathizes with survivors in the typhoon-ravaged Philippines; in another he watches in horror scenes of refugees toppling off boats in the Mediterranean as they try to reach Italy. Only one clip shows him prior to his papacy—as archbishop of Buenos Aires he addresses an outdoor crowd to encourage expressions of amity among them—a public display of the “sign of peace” found in the Vatican II liturgy.
The second major element is composed of answers to questions that Francis addresses directly to the camera. These show him to be fundamentally a pastoral pope, replying not with long, theologically intricate responses but in simple (some might say simplistic) language that consistently emphasizes his desire for the church to be “the church of the poor,” fighting materialism and greed in favor of the marginalized and dispossessed. He speaks eloquently of the need to put people before profit, and to recognize the obligation to preserve the planet for humanity—he is not a person who questions the science behind climate change or denies that it is one of the greatest challenges facing the world today.
It might be argued that the pope is not sufficiently pressed on some contemporary issues. Gay rights are limited to a clip of his famous television interview in which he asked, “Who am I to judge?” and the role of women in the church is not directly confronted, though he certainly exalts the importance of their contributions to society in general and emphasizes the family, and a meeting with an elderly nun from his past, whom he notices in the crowd during his travels and insists on hugging personally, is genuinely touching. He is more forthright on the matter of clerical abuse of children, though even here his words can be criticized for lacking specificity.
The difficulties Francis faces in reforming an institution that some see as fossilized in its ways are revealed in one archival section, in which he addresses the College of Cardinals about what he enumerates as the failings among the clergy. He calls for all to devote themselves to lives of service to their flocks rather than acquisition of power, goods and reputation, and he particularly warns against pride and competitiveness. But as the camera pans across the faces of the prelates, what one detects is more grumpiness than agreement.
There is a third element to “Pope Francis,” though by far the shortest. It consists of newly-filmed inserts showing scenes from the life of St. Francis of Assisi, all in black-and-white and distressed to look like period footage. They emphasize the saint’s calls for peace, his embrace of poverty, and his sense of communality with the natural world, and Wenders is not shy about blending them into his portrait of the pope, to suggest that Francis, by taking the saint’s name, has also adopted him as a model. That adds a hagiographic touch that some might see as going a bit too far.
But there is no doubt that the man who emerges from “Pope Francis,” nicely edited by Maxine Goedicke, is an affable, lovable person who cherishes a sense of humor and feels deeply for those who are not part of modern society’s elite and seeks to associate himself, and the church he leads, with them. It is a well-drawn if incomplete portrait that will inspire millions of Francis’ admirers, whether they are Catholics or not.