Pope Francis: A Man of His Word – updated

The new movie by the famed director Wim Wenders, Pope Francis, A Man of His Word, is a stunning depiction of Pope Francis, which brings the audience face to face with him in a way that no other film has been able to do. Francis speaks directly into the camera, and thus the viewer sees him as if he is speaking person-to-person, to you.

It’s not a biography. But it is about the person of Pope Francis and his message. The themes of the film include poverty and simplicity as a Christian religious imperative, the need to care for mother earth “our common home,” economic inclusion and acceptance of all people, inter-religious respect and dialogue,  and the value of work, human dignity, home, and family.

It is by and large a portrayal of Francis “ad extra”; there is almost nothing in the film about intramural Catholic disputes or controversies, and no footage of the Pope celebrating the liturgy, although he often traces the cross on the forehead of people he touches. One sees him interacting with people in public places with great warmth and individual attention, and one also sees him alone, memorably sitting in a concentration camp cell, and standing at the wailing wall.

“His eyes are what holds the film together,” the director has said, and it’s true. The emotional candor of his facial expressions, the composure and concision with which he speaks, plus the clarity of the ideas his words express — all of this is truly impressive and personally arresting. His humanity, if one can put it this way, is just shining. If one comes away from the film only with these general impressions and a summary of the most important themes of his pontificate, that would be enough.

But there is something more going on in the movie that I think is actually important to notice, because of the global context it creates. Early in the film, there is a scene of the piazza at Assisi, with a voice over by the director talking about the passage of time. We see people walking across the piazza who turn into ghosts and disappear, followed by others who take their place and then they too disappear. Laced throughout the film there are scenes of St. Francis of Assisi, shot in black and white and without sound, in which some of the key elements in the saint’s life that connect to the life of Pope Francis are acted out, such as his calling to rebuild God’s house, his engagement with creation, and his courage in seeking an audience with the Sultan of Egypt. These are ghost sequences, a remembrance of another figure who passed across the face of the world and made a lasting mark, yet who also died. Finally, there are several times when Pope Francis himself talks about mortality, and simply presents the need to accept that we too will die and that only God is eternal.

The film in this way quite gently raises the implicit question of what we shall do in our own “hour upon the stage,” even as we listen to the witness of this man who has in a short time made a lasting impression. This effect elevates the film, as I see it, above the level of an admiring portrayal of a single individual — Pope Francis — as important as this may be. The film is also, significantly, about the life we ourselves have been given. We’ve spent ninety minutes or so looking, mostly, into one man’s eyes. But by the end of it one is left with the impression that he is looking into our eyes. And at the last moment, he smiles.

Pope Francis, A Man of His Word, opens in theaters tomorrow: 5/18/18

Update, 6/1/18

If you are interested in a behind-the-scenes account of how the film came to be, check out this interview of Wim Wenders, by Matt Boudway, just posted at Commonweal.

For instance, there’s this disclaimer:

Other filmmakers make films about something they want to expose or something they want to explore, or something that’s wrong with the world. My documentaries are all about things that I love and they show my affection, my desire to share this with as many people as possible, and that was definitely the case with Pope Francis. I loved this man and what he stood for, so anybody who expects a film that’s critical of the church or its policies is looking for the wrong movie.

And also much, much more — on the origin of the invitation, the filming technique, etc.

Thank you to Commonweal, for publishing the transcript.

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8 comments

  1. There’s a technology angle to this – Wim Wenders uses a specific camera technique to achieve this effect. As described by Michael Sean Winters in his May 16th column: “In the documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” the filmmaker, Wenders, employs a technique that was first employed by Errol Morris: His own image is projected through a two-way mirror so the subject being interviewed is looking into the questioner’s face, even while he is really looking into the camera. In “The Fog of War,” Morris used this technique to get the famously stiff and buttoned-up Robert McNamara to open up emotionally about the decisions he made regarding the Vietnam War, to get past the obfuscations that had so long been used by “the best and the brightest” to justify their misguided decisions. Here, Wenders uses the same technique, and instead of shining a light on what was hidden and false, he shines it on Francis, whose commitment to honesty to the point of brusqueness is famous.”

  2. Thank you Rita.

    I just read a review of the movie by Slant.
    The reviewer considers the issues taken up in the movie as “liberal” ones”.

    When did the social teaching of the Church become liberal?

  3. I saw the movie on Friday night. As far as I could tell there were no more than 25 people in the auditorium. I had seen the 60 Minutes “preview” but was unsure as to how the film would flow. By film’s end I had the following observations: 1)I can’t imagine having had a more intimate encounter with Francis–his witness and teaching–than had I met him face to face. 2)I didn’t identify with the throngs of people depicted offering him adulation, but with the man and his mission as expressed in his words. 3)I found Francis enormously transparent and vulnerable as he expressed himself on poverty, human dignity, corruption, holiness, families, and the environment. He was prophetic, provocative, and inspiring.
    This evening at the 5pm Mass I asked for a show of hands of people who would like to meet the pope personally, especially if they didn’t have to worry about coming up with the money to travel to the Vatican. About two-thirds of hands went up. I recommended that they go see the film and meet the man face to face with his eyes looking directly at them. I warned them that they may not identify with everything they would hear from Francis, but just as they may not identify with everything we hear from Jesus. Then I pointed out some of Jesus’ more unpopular teachings. I’ll check back with them next Saturday night. I have no illusions about how many will take my suggestion. But for those who do, I believe it will afford them a film experience they will long remember.

    1. Wonderful way to invite your congregation to see the film, Fr. Jack! It is definitely more of a face to face conversation than any of us will get in person, even if we went to Rome.

  4. Rita, your review makes me want to see the film all the more. I sure hope it comes to Terre Haute, Indiana! I love the way in which you describe how the films calls us to reflect upon the difference we, ourselves, make in this world. You and Pope Francis already have me thinking…

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