In 2013 German filmmaker Wim Wenders received a letter with a Vatican postmark. It contained an invitation to “collaborate” with Pope Francis on a documentary about his papacy. In a recent post-screening Q&A at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, Wenders admitted that his first reaction was skepticism. Concerns about access to that famously secret world, and the degree of artistic control he could exercise, eventually gave way to the realization that the project would allow him to speak with a global leader he respected. Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is a portrait of a deeply spiritual man, a progressive thinker, and a guy who likes a good laugh.
Wenders is best-known in cinema circles for his versatility as a filmmaker. He directed such memorable features as Paris, Texas (1984), and Wings of Desire (1987), the latter a black-and-white movie about a guardian angel who falls in love with one of his charges. Wenders has also directed nearly a dozen documentary features and shorts, most recently the Oscar-nominated The Salt of the Earth (2014), about the Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado whose work emphasized the connection between human beings and their environment. Surely, that film garnered the attention of Pope Francis, the first pontiff to speak so passionately about saving the Earth, and the first from the Americas. Pope Francis’ Italian parents were immigrants to Argentina.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, out now, is comprised of archival footage and original footage of the pope’s visits to troubled areas of the Earth, and clips of speeches delivered before such groups as the U.S. Congress. Black-and-white clips, shot on a vintage hand-cranked camera to resemble silent movies, skillfully intercut into the documentary footage, recount the life of Pope Francis’ namesake, St. Francis of Assisi (1182-1226). He was the son of an affluent family who took a vow of poverty. These “narrative” segments, and the documentary footage, reveal 10 surprising aspects of the 81-year-old pontiff’s personality and beliefs.
1. Pope Francis is the first pontiff to have chosen the iconoclastic St. Francis as his namesake, prefiguring the issues that have come to define his papacy, namely his dedication to disenfranchised people. In the documentary, he calls poverty the world’s “scandal,” pointing out that 20 percent of the population controls 80 percent of the wealth.
2. The pope’s efforts to live modestly, for instance, eschewing luxurious quarters for a modest apartment, are well-known — but the documentary also illustrates his less extravagant modes of travel. When Francis addressed a joint session of Congress in 2015, his “Popemobile,” a four-cylinder Fiat 500, was dwarfed by the SUV escort vehicles that accompanied it around Washington, D.C.
3. In a clip from one of the pontiff’s first public appearances, an Italian school-girl asks why he wanted to be pope, prompting laughter from both the audience and Pope Francis himself. He ultimately explains to her that he was chosen for the job. While it is well-known that Pope Francis is the first Jesuit to hold that office, many may not realize the significance of a Jesuit ascending to power. Members of that order traditionally avoid positions of authority, working as missionaries in the poorest areas of the world. Among Roman Catholics, Jesuits are viewed as the church’s intellectuals — and as its unrepentant rebels.
4. Pope Francis testifies to what he calls his “three T’s” in the film: trabajo (work), tierra (earth) and techo (roof). These represent for him the basic rights of all people, including the right to work and to earn enough to support one’s family, as well as the right to clean, safe land on which to live or to cultivate. As for “techo,” it represents the guarantee or human right for shelter and safety.
5. The pontiff is the first to release an encyclical (a widely distributed letter) on the environment, “On Care for Our Common Home”; it is a well-researched advocacy document for what he calls “our sister,” and “our mother.”
6. Pope Francis often reminds his followers, as he does in the film, to recall that the first saints of the Roman Catholic Church were prisoners condemned to death. He refers to those who opposed the prevailing authority of their day, the Roman Empire.
7. Although he rarely has the opportunity to hear confessions, Pope Francis recalls that when he was a priest and a bishop, he would ask his penitents a question: “Did you play with your children today?” He now considers this one of the most important issues of our time because, he explains, we are not listening to our children or to others, living instead “with our foot down on the accelerator all of the time.”
8. The pontiff believes that no significant change can take place without the “integration” of women into all aspects of life and work.
9. Pope Francis decries all walls, physical and metaphorical, stating that instead humankind must build bridges.
10. The pontiff observes that “a smile is a flower,” and that each morning he recites a St. Thomas More prayer for “good humor.” He recalls the first line: “Grant me, O Lord, good digestion, and also something to digest.” That prayer ends with a plea “to be able to take a joke to discover in life a bit of joy, and to be able to share it with others.”