Prolific filmmaker Wim Wenders goes economical with his latest documentary about an essential cultural figure — the “Pina” and “Tokyo-Ga” helmer’s cinematic obsessions are always wide-ranging, and this one is no exception — for an intimate look at the life and philosophy of Pope Francis. Wenders is less concerned with the path that brought the Argentinian to his place as the living leader of the Catholic faith, instead opting to explore a very here-and-now approach to the intricacies of the pope’s own faith, and how he hopes to use it to positively impact the world around him. The film shows a refreshing interest in his current existence, rather than becoming a by-the-book retread of his pre-pope life.
In fact, “Pope Francis — A Man of His Word” offers up just a single slice of archival video that shows him preaching to a large, public crowd about the need for brotherhood in the world. It’s more than enough to drive home the point that Pope Francis has always been dedicated to such matters. He is, as promised, a man of his word.
It’s that word that forms the center of the film, and the pope often gets to speak it, thanks to a series of intimate interviews with the man himself. The gregarious spiritual leader is open and disarmingly honest, and Wenders shoots their chats with such up-close immediacy that you feel as if you’re sitting next to Pope Francis; as if his thoughts, often verging on off-the-cuff sermons, are meant just for you. But he’s also a man fully in charge of his message, and when he offers an admonishment to any churches that seek to attain wealth — “Jesus is not there,” he says of such institutions, and he’s not afraid to count some Catholic churches under that umbrella — he pauses to repeat the statement. There is no ambiguity to his message.
Pope Francis’ arguments run the gamut from the expected (he’s especially interested in the concept of true brotherhood) to the scandalous (he’s a strong proponent of the environment, believes that the power of science can go hand and hand with religion, and even talks about welcoming homosexuality into the church). Less a look inside his personal history than a stirring journey through the ideas that shape his approach to leadership and the world today, “Pope Francis — Man of His Word” emerges as a compelling chronicle of a global leader with huge reach (that happens to be rooted in faith).
Despite his singular subject, Wenders makes a number of strange choices when it comes to delivering segments of the film not dedicated to those intimate interviews. For one, there’s off-kilter narration by Wenders himself, and his pleasant German accent and stilted delivery mostly get in the way. The film opens with Wenders ruminating on the passage of time, while a time-lapse video unfolds across the screen, and it’s a strange decision that otherwise adds nothing to the film. In one scene, Pope Francis observes a river, and Wenders’ ask that the audience likewise observe the pope sounds like something pulled out of a truly weird nature documentary by Werner Herzog.
Wenders’ choice to pepper the film with stories about Pope Francis’ namesake, the venerated Saint Francis of Assisi, already feels off-kilter for such a present-focused feature, and get weirder still when they turn into flickering, black and white recreations of the saint’s journey to God. They’re done with all the refinement (and half the humor) of a Monty Python sketch, and each time they appear, they stop the film cold.
When Wenders returns to Pope Francis, “A Man of His Word” snaps back into place. His visits around the world, from prisons to hospitals, war-torn countries to refugee camps, the floor of the Senate to a typhoon-ravaged Philippines, are especially compelling, and provide a chance to see the pope’s word in action. The pure joy he inspires in people provides enough emotion to fill an entire film, and even audiences that are in no way religious will likely be quite moved by the raw power of devotion — both from his followers and the pope himself.
As it chugs towards its conclusion, the film suffers from a common case of too many endings, including a fitting one that features Pope Francis offering up a final sermon about his own philosophy with advice that’s characteristically timely and universal. Then it slogs through a handful of truncated scenes, a few more interviews, yet another time-lapse, more voiceover narration, and finally settles down at a seemingly random point. Still, one of Pope Francis’ closing messages rings out, undiluted by a muddled conclusion: “We have so much to do, and we must do it together.”
“Pope Francis — A Man of His Word” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on May 18.