Wim Wenders is a sophisticated man of cinema, a nine-time Cannes Palme d’Or contender (he won for “Paris, Texas”) who led the 1989 jury that gave Steven Soderbergh the Palme d’Or over Spike Lee. (He says he was not the architect of that collective decision.) The graduate of the ’70s German New Wave who has close ties to America has shown deep spirituality in such films as Cannes Best Director-winner “Wings of Desire,” “Faraway, So Close,” and “The Salt of the Earth.”
Still, choosing Wenders to direct a documentary about the Holy Father did not look obvious at first. It turns out that Wenders was raised in a Catholic family where “faith was important,” he told me at Cannes. He admired his father, a doctor who “lived life and his profession as a believer, he loved people and was always there for anybody who was sick.”
More recently, Wenders was struck by the joyful way his father embraced death, and having studied other religions and turned Protestant, he turned back to the faith that had once inspired him to consider becoming a priest. “I look at Christianity and Judaism as wonderful things in my spiritual life,” he said, “which I firmly believe in.”
Unlike Wenders’ three Oscar-nominated documentaries, this time he did not come up with the idea of exploring the arts via Cuban music (“The Buena Vista Social Club”), dancer Pina Bausch (3-D “Pina”) or Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (“The Salt of the Earth”). In this case, it was the Vatican’s idea — specifically, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, a cinephile who until recently led the Vatican office of Communications, which he was trying to reform.
The Vatican asked Wenders: “Would you imagine making a movie?” Said Wenders, “Yes, I could imagine, I love and am very impressed by the man. Especially as they made it clear they would not interfere with the conception or production of the film.”
Wenders fell for him the second he first came out on the St. Peters balcony and took the name Pope Francis. “I was shocked, I didn’t think it was possible that a Pope would take that name. That electrified me and that connected me to him. I had to explain to an audience what was special about that.”
The Vatican wanted the producers to finance and create the movie. They would offer the Pope’s participation, open their archives, and give Wenders carte blanche. “They wanted to see it, but never to censor it,” he said. “They never said anything. Actually, I wish they would say something.” When Wenders send them his written concept, he got only positive feedback: “‘You do the film you think you want to do.’ At some point I realized that it was quite a responsibility,”
The Vatican even let him use never-before-seen archive footage of the Pontiff lecturing his cardinals about the diseases of the world that could not only afflict others but interfere with their spirituality as well. “This is a crucial scene,” he said, admitting he was afraid the Vatican might object. “You see from these faces that some of them are really shocked. Some faces are: ‘Good, this is why we chose you.’ It’s both. Some people were like a hurricane was blowing in their faces.” It stayed in.
Wenders follows the Pope as he travels the globe giving speeches, meeting the poor, and greeting them as cordially as he did Wenders’ crew each time he sat down for a total of four interviews over four years. Pope Francis addresses the camera, in Spanish. Wenders sent his questions to the Vatican, but got no comment. “The pope never hesitated to answer any of them with the same frankness, the same spontaneity,” he said,. “He was very present, to have a man who didn’t have a phone, who didn’t look at an assistant or anybody, he was just all there in front of the camera, and answered the question, eye to eye, face to face.”
What saves the movie from lengthy speeches and lectures from the Pope about how we should save the planet, care for our fellow human beings, accept homosexuality, and follow the Golden Rule, is a black-and-white silent film within the film about the Pope’s namesake, the 12th-century ascetic St. Francis of Asissi, who took a vow of poverty. The re-enactments look like found classic footage. (Wenders also considered Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 “The Flowers of St. Francis” and 1989 docudrama “Francesco,” which starred Mickey Rourke rolling around in snow, his tattoos visible.)
He wanted to keep his documentary on the lean side. “You couldn’t make a luxurious film about a man who lives a simple honest life and preaches,” he said. “We had to do with less. We had to make as little a movie as possible, and prove we can make a movie with less. So we didn’t have any means.”
With no art department for a medieval period film, Wenders hired three actors and rented three costumes and used the same hand-cranked Debrie camera from the 1920s that Carl Theodor Dryer used for “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” “This camera I’ve used before makes everything look old, makes everybody believe that we are in the past,” he said. “There are cars and antennas in the background, but that camera fools everybody.”
Wenders worries about the state of the world and lost morality, especially in politics, he said: “I was happy I was asked to do this, the more I got into it.” He found the the title — “A Man of His Word” — in the editing room. “To find somebody who really meant what he had to say, who had no industry or interest behind him except the common good — whatever he said was unbiased, and was clear and simple, and in my book, true. It was an amazing example.”
What struck Wenders the most is the Pontiff’s “gentleness and the way he looked at me when we were doing this, the way he looked at everybody, the openness. He has deep love for people. He is a very powerful man in his presence, his spirit, and his way of being. He can’t help it. You’re in awe of somebody who’s sure of himself and so clean and gentle at the same time.”