(2018—Director: Wim Wenders)
— by Renard N. Bansale —
(out of 5 stars)
“As long as the Church is placing its hope on wealth, Jesus is not there.” — Pope Francis
“The artist is an apostle of beauty, who helps others live better.” — Pope Francis
Potential spoilers below
From his elevation to the papacy in March of 2013, the humble man born with the name of Jorge Mario Bergoglio has made huge impressions in the minds of believers and nonbelievers alike. For one, the former Archbishop of Buenos Aires, Argentina became the first to take the regnal name of Francis. By honoring the famous 13th-century saint from Assisi, the 266th pope made clear that his papacy would devote special attention to the world’s poor. German filmmaker Wim Wenders surveys in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (henceforth just A Man of His Word) how the titular leader of the Catholic Church has carried out this mission in the five years since his election.
Most cinephiles know the 72-year-old Wenders, now well into his fifth decade of filmmaking, for some of his narrative features. 1984’s Paris, Texas, which features a career-defining performance by Harry Dean Stanton, won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. 1987’s Wings of Desire won Best Director at its Cannes premiere and later spawned the 1993 sequel Faraway, So Close! (also directed by Wenders) and the 1998 American remake City of Angels. Since then, however, Wenders has earned greater notices for his documentaries. Three of these—1999’s Buena Vista Social Club, 2011’s Pina, and 2014’s The Salt of the Earth—were nominated for the Academy Award for Best Documentary—Feature.
Barring a weak year for documentaries, I doubt Wenders’ focus on the Roman Pontiff will join that trio of Oscar-nominees. A Man of His Word ultimately amounts to a solid, not great, overview of Pope Francis’ first five years. Since the man’s life has been anything but private, there is little in the documentary that will surprise those who have followed the papal visits and infamous and often misinterpreted off-the-cuff quotes now common to his reign. The documentary will serve schoolteachers and theologians well, but even at 96 minutes, it would not surprise me if a casual viewer comes close to dozing off at least once. One element that could have elevated A Man of His Word is a transcendent score, to offset the standard survey format. (I type that sentence with Philip Glass’ riveting score for 2017’s Jane in mind and in ears.) Instead, audiences will barely notice the score by past Wenders collaborator Laurent Petitgand.
A Man of His Word succeeds best when Wenders places the camera head-on with the Holy Father and just lets him talk. Viewers have much to learn from Pope Francis’ words on charity and inter-religious rifts. On a basic level, the Holy Father preaches, God pours out his infinite love onto all mankind. It is each individual’s free and continuous response, with respect to each individual’s God-given capacity for holiness, that results in both the world’s worst problems and sufferings as well as its saints. Also, for humans in their fallen and proud nature, human fraternity should receive prudent attention well before addressing the need for religious conversion.
One unexpected inclusion in the documentary are the black and white, dialogue-free, framing sequences that dramatize a few major events in the life of Saint Francis of Assisi. Comparable to the segments of Robert De Niro as young Vito Corleone in The Godfather Part II, these serve to spiritually bridge the humble mission of Assisi’s Francis with that of today’s Francis. The visuals in these snippets also remind me of Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1966 biographical epic Andrei Rublev, always a plus.
Wenders (who serves as the uncredited narrator) can, at times, lean close to spinning His Holiness’ words with a political angle. Clips bring up topics like the economy, global warming, the infamous “Who am I to judge?” remark regarding those with same-sex attractions (a response which, in context, is not problematic by itself), and the priest sex abuse scandal. Wenders further notes the Bishop of Rome’s preferences for a smaller apartment and riding the bus or small personal vehicles in a way one can interpret as a dig at Francis’ predecessors.
Yet I admire Wenders for never going all the way in proclaiming Francis as the all-time best successor to Peter. Wenders prudently sticks to showing the Holy Father as a man, overwhelmed by the pressures of his office and yet persevering in his daily work for the sake of the billions across the world whom he inspires and guides. Little to nothing in this sturdy documentary should discourage faithful and reluctant Catholics from watching it. More importantly, non-Catholics can take away much wisdom from Pope Francis’ words, all unfiltered by a wise filmmaker whom God might well grace with a sixth decade to continue his storied career.
(Parental Note: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word has been rated PG by the MPAA “for thematic material, including images of suffering”. It has also been rated A-II (Adults and older children) by the Catholic News Service for containing “mature themes and some potentially upsetting images.”)
Renard N. Bansale once aspired to become an astronaut, before he found his passion in film discussion, criticism, conducting script-reading sessions of feature film screenplays, and annual Oscar tracking. Hailing from Seattle, WA, Renard graduated from JPCatholic in 2016 with a B.S. in Communications Media (Emphasis in Screenwriting) and is currently pursuing his M.A. in Theology online at the Augustine Institute.
For more movie reviews by Renard, click here.