By Jim Slotek
It’s a massaged message to be sure, commissioned by the Vatican, though it claims editorial hands-off status. But Wim Wenders’ Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is an inspiring documentary about a man with a message of humility, charity, peace and stewardship of the planet.
He’s also a man with a whole lot of frequent flyer miles.
We get a great deal of face time with the good-humoured man born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires, and hear some of the most inspiring words from a religious leader since Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. But when he’s not in a chair addressing us directly, we see him on the road. Francis is clearly the most well-travelled Pope in history (one of the parallels the film draws with the Pope’s inspiration, St. Francis of Asisi, a pilgrim with a message of human connectedness under God).
Washington, Philadelphia, Rio de Janeiro, Naples, the Central African Republic, the Philippines (in the still blowing ebb of Typhoon Haiyan no less), Francis is there preaching against the sins of consumerism, corruption and soul-less competitiveness. He welcomes half-drowned refugees on the Mediterranean coast. He touches cancer victims and spots an aged nun in the throng from the stage in Buenos Aires whom he recognizes from their shared youth. There are audiences with Angela Merkel, Shimon Peres, Barack Obama and, um, Donald Trump. He seems determined to be engaged with the world.
Wenders posits this as a narrative thread from St. Francis, who was said to have been sent on the road to sanctification with the words of Christ on the cross saying, “Restore my house!” (St. Francis is depicted throughout in deliberate silent-movie style black and white by Ignazio Oliva, who, ironically, played the Pope’s assistant Valente in the HBO series The Young Pope).
Is the movie’s message that Francis’s mission is to restore Christ’s house? In some early footage we see him fairly taking a strip off the Vatican curia for its luxuries and “spiritual Alzheimers,” in its neglect of the poor and the world’s refugees.
We see the actual video of his in-flight press conference, in which he made the head-turning “Who am I to judge?” comment about homosexuality. We see him, in talking head mode, vowing “Zero tolerance!” to child abuse in the Catholic church, and promising that, in civil actions, the church would support the families (whose lawyers are undoubtedly taking note).
As Wenders notes in his narration (sounding as metaphoric as his doc-making countryman Werner Herzog at times), “Pope Francis has no weapons other than his words.” And indeed, they are just words, however heartfelt. When he says, “Who am I to judge?” it doesn’t change Church dogma about gays. His passionate speech to the U.S. Congress about the urgent need for the world to welcome refugees got a standing ovation (from Democrats, anyway – Paul Ryan looked like he was about to burst into flames). But subsequently, the U.S. has almost allowed in more of Melania’s family than they have Syrian refugees.
And when the Pope says there can be no future without the participation of women, it glosses over the fact that he has seconded the words of John Paul II that women would never serve in the priesthood. And if he secretly feels otherwise, could it be done without a Vatican III-style conclave?
And who knows if he is politically paving the way for such a thing? You won’t find out from Pope Francis: A Man of His Word how a hard right-winger like Pope Benedict XVI could be followed by a South American leftist activist who considers the disparity of wealth one of the greatest sins of our age.
Nor do you really learn that much about his past, the same past that would have formed the caring worldview now on display.
Not that I’m going to look a gift pontiff in the mouth. There are plenty of thoughts to ponder in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. It is a plea for goodness in mean-spirited times. It may be a futile plea, but it appears at 81, the Pope has nothing to lose speaking his mind.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. Directed by Wim Wenders. Starring Pope Francis, Ignazio Oliva. Opens wide Friday, May 18.