Aptly named, Pope Francis – A Man of His Word is utterly fascinated by the importance of language. Rather than dive straight into the ramifications of his position within the Catholic Church, the latest documentary from prolific German filmmaker Wim Wenders chooses to begin by discussing how Francis came about choosing his papal name (a tribute to Saint Francis of Assisi). While it certainly won’t win over many converts, this portrait is a surprisingly candid account of the man himself, told in his own heartfelt words.
Much of A Man of His Word plays like the Pope’s sizzle reel. We are given brief highlights from Pope Francis’s time at the Vatican (making his first appearance after a papal conclave elected him the successor of Pope Benedict XVI, delivering an address at the joint session of the United States Congress to a standing ovation from both sides of the aisle, consoling disaster victims in refugee camps, etc.). This isn’t a standard cradle-to-grave chronicle of his life. Wenders isn’t concerned with the path that brought Francis into the papacy. Rather, the documentary is a brief snapshot of his current spiritual outlook, particularly in its application to real-world dilemmas.
Francis has assumed such a peculiar role because, compared to his predecessors, he is very much an outsider. The papacy has never been held by a Jesuit or even by someone from the Southern Hemisphere. To the dismay of many conservative Catholics (and the relief of nearly everyone else), Francis has brought his progressive ideals with him to title, separating him from the other 265 men who have held it. The title of the documentary harkens to his comparatively relaxed lifestyle, as he makes sacrifices to follow through on his relatively radical views. Wenders showcases the Pope as a man who goes out of his way to – quite literally – practice what he preaches. Even at the expense of centuries-old traditions, his focus lies on providing for the need and preaching the gospel of “fraternal peace.”
This includes a surprising emphasis placed on environmentalism. We are sustained by the earth and, according to Pope Francis, it is our divine responsibility to return the favor through the act of stewardship. Although it is often viewed as scandalous to pearl-clutching traditionalists, he discusses the symbiotic relationship between faith and science, which is precisely the kind of forward thinking that makes him appealing to those outside of the Catholic faith. His interpretation of the scripture always skews toward the common good, a worldview that has allow led to his relaxed policies regarding homosexuality and even atheism.
Francis calls out injustice wherever he sees it, making no exceptions for his own flawed organization. In the documentary, he is quite clear on his views regarding houses of worship that use their congregants in the pursuit of wealth. “Jesus is not there,” he reminds us, including Catholic churches in his judgment. He points to specific institutions and their offenses in his attack on capitalist greed in the name of God. It is no surprise that there is a movement among certain corners of Catholicism to boycott this documentary.
Pope Francis – A Man of His Word places its focus on the man himself, rather than the spiritual domain he presides over. As a result, there’s little light shed on the theological motivations behind his worldview, which will serve as a fitting entry point for any non-religious viewers. Wim Wenders paints Francis as the Tom Hanks of popes, a kind-hearted altruist who simply wants to make the world a little more considerate. As advertised, Pope Francis is, indeed, willing to put his democratic socialist message into action, and his core beliefs ring true to those of all ideological backgrounds.