On the day the German director Wim Wenders’ documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word opened (May 18th), I went to the earliest morning show at the nearest multiplex. I arrived about 20 minutes early and took a seat. The 10:30 start time rolled around, and I was the only one in the theater.
Wenders is a documentarian of note, as well as a feature film director. His romantic fantasy Wings of Desire (1988), a drama about a guardian angel who falls in love with a trapeze artist, was much-acclaimed, and his 1999 documentary about Cuban musicians, Buena Vista Social Club, received an Oscar nomination – and, again, much acclaim.
Mr. Wenders’ most recent drama, Submergence (2017), a spy thriller of sorts, was an artistic, critical, and financial disaster. Pope Francis may be a sign that the director has lost his touch.
It’s wrong to dignify this exercise in hagiography with the word “documentary.” It’s more akin to the kind of promotional video one might expect to see at a political convention – the kind that uncritically ballyhoos the accomplishments of the party’s nominee.
Wenders, who was raised in a Catholic family, went over to Protestantism and now carelessly describes himself as “Catholic and a Protestant at the same time,” is not at all interested in the pope’s religion. It’s the pope’s activism that hooked him and that led to his decision to accept the Vatican’s request that he make the film.
The German title of Wings of Desire is Der Himmel Über Berlin (“Heaven Over Berlin”), and Pope Francis: A Man of His Word begins with a heaven’s-eye-view shot of Vatican City.
Wenders has structured the film with several oft-repeated elements: interviews with the pope (filmed “medium close,” the Holy Father staring directly at the viewer – actually at the red light above the camera lens); news footage of the pope traveling to visit slums and ghettoes and favelas around the world; and odd black-and-white vignettes depicting the life of St. Francis.
With regard to this last element, Wenders clearly intends that we see Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of name upon his election to the papacy as prophetic – and as validated by the pope’s subsequent behavior.
Those silent, black-and-white segments depicting St. Francis were shot using a 1920’s-era camera, and the film thus produced is a bit grainy and meant to suggest something very old. Obviously, the decision to go with an early 20th-century camera was necessitated by the unavailability of 13th-century cameras. The segments are silly.
But what makes Pope Francis: A Man of His Word an utter failure is its refusal to engage the whole story of this papacy. Only a single, unspecific mention (at film’s end) is made concerning controversy, despite the fact that this is objectively the most divisive papacy since at least the last Medici (to be sure, for different reasons).
It’s the only interview-based documentary I’ve ever seen in which only the subject of the film is interviewed. With Lisa Rinzler’s soft-focus photography of the smiling pontiff, one might imagine it is Leni Riefenstahl, not Wenders, standing at the cinematographer’s shoulder.
Wenders has said in interviews that Cardinal Bergoglio’s choice of his papal name stands for:
a radical identification and solidarity with the poor and the outcast, it was synonymous with a deep care for nature and “Mother Earth” and for a renewed effort to instigate peace between [sic] the religions.
He has also said he has no interest in what other documentarians call a “critical distance” between filmmaker and subject, which is why the documentary is little more than a propaganda video. Wenders, who narrates throughout, appears to believe he is making a case for the pope, but no winning case can ever be made that ignores contradictory evidence: even if, in the end, there is an acquittal.
Wenders is especially enthusiastic about Laudato sí’, the pope’s environmental encyclical, and its smudge is all over the documentary. The director presents scenes of poverty and filth and luxuriates in the pope’s hectoring about greed. Francis believes the Gospels are an anti-poverty manual of sorts, and he rails against gated communities, embraces Evo Morales, and seems blissfully unaware (and, at 81, uneducable) about the clearly demonstrated answer to the alleviation of poverty, which is free-market development. For a man of the people, he has an elitist’s taste for top-down, command economies.
At the film’s conclusion, the pope says there are two things he tries to do every day: smile and laugh. The pope’s smiles are abundant in Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, yet Wenders’ documentary is humorless and ultimately joyless, largely because this is a pope more given to badgering than inspiring, and there’s a leaden solemnity to the film.
Clearly, Wenders intends to show a simple man trying to save the world, but it is salvation almost entirely in sociopolitical terms, which is why the documentary focuses on what are global political issues and presents the pope as the planet’s preeminent social-justice warrior.
It’s not that I think this is a misread of Pope Francis; it may not be. At one point the pope says that the Church is not an NGO (non-governmental organization – examples: Greenpeace, Doctors without Borders), yet that’s pretty much the way Wenders’ focus makes it seem.
Above all, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is boring. Now it may be I say that because it tells a story that I – and, I suspect, readers of The Catholic Thing– already know. It seemed to me like a recap such as one sees at the start of many mini-series, as in “previously on . . .” or “our story so far . . .” Except that it’s an hour-and-a-half recap. And I wonder for whom Wenders intends his documentary. Lapsed Catholics? Curious Protestants? Catholic schoolchildren?
I thought about walking out 45 minutes into what’s only a 96-minute film, but I couldn’t have done that and then written this review.