There have been a fair few documentaries so far this year focusing on singular figures who have made a difference in the world. Some are joyous, some are depressing, some are downright silly. However, by definition, Pope Francis – A Man of His Word, can best be described as “incomplete,” because given the access granted to filmmaker Wim Wenders by the Vatican, one can pretty well assume they weren’t going to be too pleased with any criticism of the pontiff, especially given the whole, you know, infallible thing. Still, the portrait we do get is still pretty pleasant.
Now, I’m not a Catholic, nor will I ever be one, but that doesn’t stop Francis from being a fascinating figure to me. I don’t agree with him on everything. As far as I’m concerned the Church has a LOOOOOOOOONNNNNNGGGGG way to go on issues like women’s rights and child rape, but Francis is the first pope in my lifetime to make some truly remarkable – almost radical – progressive steps, setting his agenda on embracing the most vulnerable of his flock, the poor.
The film spends a great deal of time on this, especially as it relates to the works of St. Francis of Assisi, who is represented by a mock-silent film shown in interstitial scenes at the beginning of the film and after each act. From the moment he was elected by the conclave, Pope Francis has eschewed the wealth of his position, wearing a modest frock and skull cap as opposed to the lavish robes, jewelry, and hats of his predecessor, the Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. He even chooses to live in a small apartment in the Vatican rather than the traditional palace.
But what really hammers home his dedication to the poor are his words and actions outside of the Holy See. One of the few truly political moments of the film is when he makes his speech to Congress, an event arranged by then-Speaker of the House John Boehner, his last passion project (pun intended) as a Congressman. While Boehner reveres the pope and cried during the speech, you could see the stone faces of his fellow conservative politicians – particularly those who campaign on their Christianity – like Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and several others, as Francis talks about the need to feed the poor, shelter refugees, and stop worshiping money. They sit silently while the Democrats on the left side of the hall cheer and give standing ovations. This is a man who considers the idea of a gated community to be a sin. Naturally, the politicians handing the people in those communities massive tax cuts would not be favored by him.
Most of the rest of the poverty thesis is on Francis being among the people. Hugging, kissing, washing their feet, talking to prisoners and celebrities alike. Regardless of personal beliefs, most can agree that Francis’ strongest asset is his ability to engage with people. He gets out of his Popemobile plenty of times to greet individuals, including a nun he knew when he was still a priest. He speaks to Filipinos to share their grief after a deadly tsunami. He answers questions about gays and atheists on a plane in more concrete, loving terms than any pontiff before him. He takes every opportunity to participate in interfaith activities as a show of solidarity and peace. It’s not explicitly stated, but there is an “American Dream” vibe that pervades the entire film because Francis is the first pope from the Americas, from outside of Europe even, raised in an environment where elitism and hierarchy takes a back seat to the true family bonding that the Church fosters in places like Argentina.
That said, his biggest strength also makes for the biggest weaknesses of the film. Early on, and at a few other moments throughout, Francis speaks in interviews about the importance of listening more than you speak, about hearing the problems of the people and offering help any way you can. It’s a lovely sentiment, and one I think he truly believes in, but sadly, given the lauding nature of this documentary’s format, more than 90% of the film is him talking, so it rings a bit hollow. That’s more on Wenders for his narrative style than on Francis, but it is noticeable.
Similarly, towards the end, the film’s narrator notes that Francis has been a positive force for change in the world in his five years as pope, saying he’s faced much opposition. The problem is, we never see any of that opposition. At best, we see one meeting of cardinals where their faces don’t show signs of reaction either for or against his words. Towards the end, there are brief cuts to Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, implying (without outright saying it because there’s a TON of evidence if you want to look it up) that they are obstacles to peace and understanding in the world, regardless of faith. Apart from that, there’s nothing.
Again, it’s a missed opportunity. One of the major turning points for the Church over the last 20 years was when John Paul II acknowledged that the theory of evolution is most likely correct. Francis, in this film, outright states that the Creation Myth of Genesis is just that, a myth. There’s heavy resistance to that idea inside and outside of the Church. Just watch any random 15 minutes of Fox News when the abortion debate comes up. You will invariably see someone argue that you can’t be a good Catholic and still be for abortion rights. However, these same people will scoff (and sometimes outright insult or threaten) someone who counters by asking if you can be a good Catholic and be for America’s preemptive wars or against teaching evolution, because the Church has made its opinion clear on those issues as well. This is the opposition and resistance the film needed to show to pay off the assertion that Francis has faced obstacles. You can’t just toss off a thesis and not back it up.
Still, there’s a good deal to enjoy here, and again, this is coming from someone who has no connection to the Catholic Church (I suspect I was the only one in the theatre who didn’t). If you really want an indication as to how Francis might affect the Church during his tenure, look no further than a sermon he gives about 2/3 of the way through the film. It was something truly novel for me, something I’ve never seen. He talks about Jesus, but never refers to him as “Lord,” or “Father,” or anything of the sort. He calls Jesus, “Big Brother.” That’s an amazing angle. Christ isn’t an authority who can punish, he’s a sibling who walks the path with you, but older and wiser enough to protect you. Keep spreading that message, that religion should be a loving institution rather than an authority, and you’ll win some converts.
Join the conversation in the comments below! What film should I review next? What do you do to help the poor? Do you think I watched this movie simply as an apology for Deadpool advertising itself as the “second coming”? Let me know!