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
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.