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Review: Wim Wenders takes the divine route for his Pope Francis documentary

Produced in conjunction with the Vatican, Wim Wenders's new documentary Pope Francis – A Man of His Word is a mix of admiring portrait and straight-up church propaganda.

Focus Features

  • Title: Pope Francis – A Man of His Word
  • Director: Wim Wenders
  • Classification: PG; 96 minutes

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The theme of the 2018 Met Gala – that annual fundraising pageant of celebrity and cartoonish high-fashion costuming – was Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination. Watching Lana Del Rey stroll the red carpet dressed as Our Lady of Sorrows or Kim Kardashian pose for the paparazzi in a metallic dress studded with lavish bijou crosses or Rihanna sporting a jewel-encrusted papal mitre with hoop earrings and heels by Christian (wink, wink) Louboutin was enough to make crucifix clutchers howl, “Blasphemy!”

Viewed more generously, however, the Catholic-inspired pomp wasn’t so much an haute-couture black mass as a reflection on the conspicuous wealth and decadence of the church itself, which has over two millennia swelled into opulence and irrelevance, effectively betraying the teachings and mission of Jesus Christ. To paraphrase the church’s latest, self-styled radical leader: Wherever there is wealth, there is no Jesus.

Pope Francis – A Man of His Word is an odd documentary – a kind of audio-visual papal encyclical. Produced in conjunction with the Vatican and written and directed by German New Waver Wim Wenders, it’s a mix of admiring portrait and straight-up church propaganda. Like many people who have come to admire the 266th pope (this reviewer included), Wenders exhibits an obvious, and rather sincere, reverence for Francis’s environmentalism, his anti-capitalism and his commitment to reboot the church with a more ascetic program of missionary goodwill. (In this sense, he recalls the radicalism of his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, whose own break from church tradition Wenders re-enacts in a fittingly severe style recalling the canon of cinematic spiritualists such as Carl Theodor Dreyer and Robert Bresson.)

It says something of Pope Francis that he seems most genuinely at ease when he is among the poor, the ailing and the imprisoned, attending to the truly less fortunate, whose suffering constitutes the spiritual bedrock of Christianity. Throughout the film, he says all the right things – about the place of women in the church, about homosexuality, about the end of armed conflict, about the excruciating debasement of the church’s child sex scandals, about the need for a sense of humour. Watching him smile and wave and address the U.S. Congress (who applaud him like trained seals, despite their contempt for pretty much everything he says and stands for), one wants, desperately, to believe that this guy is on the right side of history – a champion of humanity, a good pope. But therein lies the paradox that A Man of His Word can, by its very nature, never reconcile.

In his documentary, Wim Wenders exhibits a reverence for Pope Francis’s environmentalism, his anti-capitalism and his commitment to reboot the church with a more ascetic program of missionary goodwill.

POPE FRANCIS - A MAN OF HIS WORD/Focus Features

To the non-believer, the Pope’s privileged, divinely derived claim to the wisdom of God seems absurd. Even if he wields his authority for good, that authority is itself unjustifiable. Praising a pope for being decent is like praising the profiteering CEO who exploits his employees’ labour while offering them a range of fun breakfast cereals, granola bars and Keurig pods in the polished steel kitchenette. The institution of the church is corrupt, even if its executor seems like a stand-up sort of guy. Watching Francis visit the Second and Third Worlds, where the missionary work of the Catholic Church still effects meaningful change, it becomes difficult to argue against his work and his (relatively) drastic reorientation of the church’s values. It’s in the more developed world of overabundance, where he shakes hands with Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump and preaches to a bored Paul Ryan, that his ostensible goodness poses a more substantive problem.

The comedian David Cross has a bit about how, despite being an atheist, he’s always thrilled when people offer to pray for him, as their prayers offer insurance against his own sins and misdeeds. Likewise, philosopher Slavoj Zizek uses the example of Tibetan prayer wheels, into which one places a piece of paper inscribed with a prayer, allowing the wheel to pray on their behalf, thus freeing the mind to pursue all manner of obscene and unchaste thoughts. Francis – and, to an extent, all visible religious figures – offers a similar second-hand solace. We enjoy watching him pray and reflect on wealth redistribution and the pressing need to save our planet because it means we don’t have to. His sincerity offers an alluring catharsis, a hope-by-proxy. We don’t have to believe, just as long as we can believe that he believes.

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So where the hypocrisy, didacticism and inaction of previous popes righteously roused our anger and indignation, Francis stands as a palliative cure-all for anti-papal sentiment. Likewise, Wenders’s documentary seems to yearn to excite the viewer’s passion, to ignite a desire to take meaningful action against the very real social problems the Pope so clearly diagnoses.

Yet, in its (literally) state-sponsored advocacy for its subject’s image, it serves only to further quench those indignant fires. We don’t have to believe in the pontiff’s divine authority, or even his encouraging message of social, political and spiritual upheaval. We need only watch a 90-minute documentary.

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