Review: In ‘Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,’ a Religious Leader Speaks at Length
Posted May 17, 2018 10:11 p.m. EDT
The director Wim Wenders is also the narrator of “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” a documentary portrait of the pope. Early on, Wenders points out three pertinent firsts about the man and his position: He is the first Jesuit pope, the first pope to hail from the Americas (he was born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in 1936, in Argentina), and the first pope to adopt the name of St. Francis of Assisi. For Wenders, this last fact is most significant. The film begins with a long, high angle shot of the Italian village of Assisi, done in time-lapse cinematography to convey what the filmmaker considers the timeless nature of the place.
For much of this movie, Wenders frames the pope in a plain medium close-up and invites the man to speak his mind. With his kind face, intelligent gaze, and ready smile, Francis is an amiable and compelling figure. He is not what you would call starry-eyed, though. He shows considerable knowledge of the horrors of the modern world and speaks with simplicity, informed by philosophical inquiry, about what the Roman Catholic Church can do to counter it.
Wenders’ singular focus on Francis is born of sincere admiration, but it also constitutes a canny strategy. This pope is a controversial one, and this portrait plucks him out of the context of debated opinions to let him speak without argument. “The world is mostly deaf,” he says at one point. He continues to describe his approach when traveling the world and meeting its leaders: “Talk little. Listen a lot.” Nevertheless, in this film the pope is given his say, at length.
The interview sections are fascinating, and scenes of the pope’s travels, during which he frequently washes the feet of those who come to him, are moving. His shedding of the trappings of the papacy and adoption of relative austerity — extending to the use of a very small car as his designated “popemobile” — buttress the assertion of the movie’s title.
Less welcome are Wenders’ brief attempts at depicting the life of St. Francis himself. These are done in an approximation of silent-movie style: in black and white with a bit of flicker in the image. I don’t know what Wenders was thinking here. If this was a whimsical attempt at mass-audience accessibility, no whimsy or lightness is conveyed. It just feels dumb. And frustrating, especially considering that if Wenders wanted a classic film model to emulate for evoking St. Francis, he needed look no further than Roberto Rossellini’s splendid 1950 film “The Flowers of St. Francis.”
“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is not rated. In Italian, Spanish, German and English, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 36 minutes.