The world has regarded Pope Francis with fascination since his surprising ascendancy to the Chair of Peter in 2013. As the first Jesuit ever elected, as well as the first pope from the Americas and the first from the Southern Hemisphere, Argentina’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio was certain to bring a different perspective to the complex issues he faced in the world.
With a strong focus on the environment and frequent calls for economic justice, as well as a welcoming attitude toward those distanced from Catholicism, he has stirred plenty of debate throughout his six years as the leader of the Roman Catholic Church.
In the new documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” acclaimed German director Wim Wenders (“Wings of Desire,” “Buena Vista Social Club”) shines a spotlight on the philosophical side of the pontiff, revealing that his choice of name might be the most important key of all to understanding his reign.
Surprisingly, the film didn’t originate from Wenders’ own desire to pursue the pontiff, but rather from a Vatican request for the born-Catholic, “ecumenical Christian” filmmaker to help provide an in-depth platform for Pope Francis’ philosophy.
“One day, a letter by the Vatican arrived in my office. Would I be inclined to discuss a project with them involving Pope Francis?” explained Wenders in an interview with Angelus News.
Wenders said he’d been excited about the new pope from the moment he’d heard his choice of name.
“Francis! Wow! What a promise that was!” Wenders said. “No pope had ever dared to take up this name. … It stood for a radical identification with the poor and the outcast and it was synonymous with a deep care for nature and ‘our sister Mother Earth.’ ”
The German filmmaker eventually met with Msgr. Dario Vigan√≤, then the director of Vatican Television (recently embroiled in a Vatican “fake news” scandal), whom Wenders said promised him that the project would be “an independent production and that the Vatican was not going to interfere.”
“He kept his promise,” Wenders added.
Wenders filmed the pontiff in four two-hour sessions over a two-year period, allowing him to speak in his native Spanish for all the interviews. With the project kept secret until filming was completed, the film just made its worldwide debut at the Cannes Film Festival this month.
Forgoing a traditional documentary structure in which Pope Francis’ life is depicted from childhood through the present, Wenders doesn’t cover his pre-papacy years aside from opening with footage of him speaking to a small crowd in a park while serving as Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1999.
The speech focuses on the simple yet essential principle that all humans are brothers and sisters under God and that brotherly love is the key to a peaceful world and all human interaction.
The film then jumps to the dramatic night in which Pope Francis was introduced to the world from a Vatican balcony, before showing him answering questions from young children soon after.
His interaction with youngsters sets an important precedent for the rest of his teachings in the documentary, as he places extreme emphasis on the importance of family life and parents playing with their children.
In his most stirring comments, Pope Francis expresses his fierce resolve to cure the Church of pedophilia and his determination to remove pedophile priests from their pastoral duties.
These are all comments that any Catholic can agree upon, but the film spends the majority of its time following the pontiff around the world to troubled zones ranging from the poverty-ridden heart of Africa and the hurricane-stricken Philippines to a European prison and a Greek refugee camp amid Europe’s immigration crisis.
These sequences are emotionally affecting, but they also feature Pope Francis commenting about man’s destruction of the environment and economic inequality to a degree that might make politically conservative Catholics a little uncomfortable. Another scene shows the moment when the pope stirred controversy by saying that if homosexuals strive for a relationship with God, “Who am I to judge?”
Ultimately, however, the film is invaluable for understanding Pope Francis’ opinions and inspirations, and should be a great conversation-starter among Catholics trying to understand the role of the Church in the present age.
Wenders serves up a couple of lengthy sequences covering the life of the pontiff’s patron saint, St. Francis of Assisi, describing him as a “revolutionary” who believed that true Christian ministry required embracing poverty over materialism and that proper stewardship of the planet is an essential part of being a believer.
What shines through and transcends any potential controversies in the pope’s comments is the highly intimate approach Wenders took in filming the pontiff.
“What I most wanted to share was the privilege to be eye to eye with the pope. To look into these utterly friendly, kind, curious, open and tender eyes was something I couldn’t just keep for myself!” explained Wenders.
“So I decided to shoot our long and intense talks in a way that Pope Francis is now eye to eye with everybody in the audience. I wanted people to be able to listen to the pope as attentively as possible and to see him as intimately as possible.”
Those talks were filmed using an elaborate “reversed teleprompter” apparatus that allowed the pope to speak directly into a camera-equipped monitor showing Wenders, who was actually a few steps away.
“We were both involved so intensely in our conversation that we totally forgot this technical medium in-between,” recalled the director.
In the end, Wenders felt working on the film deepened his own faith, both in his personal sessions with the pope and especially observing his comments in detail repeatedly throughout the editing process.
“It did have a great impact on me, particularly his positive and optimistic energy, his confidence in God, his humility, his courage, his kindness … they were all contagious and a huge inspiration.”
“Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” opened nationwide Friday, May 18, and is playing in selected theaters throughout the Los Angeles area.
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