Did you know that Pope Francis is the head of a global humanitarian organisation dedicated principally to saving “Mother Earth”? This is the impression given by the documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word (★, PG, 96 minutes), produced, co-written and directed by Wim Wenders, and released this week.
The film starts with a “homily” from Wenders on St Francis. It transpires that the Catholic saint and stigmatic was more a social revolutionary than a follower of Christ. Thereafter, the film’s secular understanding of spirituality is the lens through which the current Pope is viewed. This misrepresents Francis as first and foremost a political activist, with the film’s contention endlessly promulgated throughout with footage of the Pope visiting prisons, migrant camps, and the poor in South America. In turn, this is interspersed with the Pope talking directly to the camera, mostly about poverty and ecology. Pope Francis has the air of a long and worthy secular sermon on the environment.
The first rule of cinema is to entertain. Pope Francis does nothing of the kind. It is a long infomercial for what some people would like the Church to be and for what Pope Francis’s role might be in that fantasy. The complexities of his office, and indeed the Holy Father’s wide-ranging spiritual and moral concerns, are edited into something that is needlessly bland and spiritually empty.
For example, there is much footage of the Pope in dialogue with, or praying alongside, other religious leaders; there are no images of him saying Holy Mass. Indeed, there is little reference to the Christian faith at all. This film could just as easily – and more truthfully – have been made about the Dalai Lama.
At the film’s mid-point, and for no apparent narrative reason, there is the press conference on board the papal jet where, in response to a journalist’s question about a “gay lobby”, Pope Francis says: “ Who am I to judge?” The film talks of Pope Francis battling “dark forces” so as to “move the Church forward like never before”. It also informs us that Assisi, former home of St Francis, is now “a world centre for all religions”. This film has an axe to grind and, come what may, it is going to grind its message home ad nauseam.
One wonders who Pope Francis is aimed at. If non-Catholics, then surely many will see it as mere Vatican spin. Avoiding all reference to the supernatural nature of the Church and the papacy, informed Catholics will see it for what it is: a lopsided take on this particular pontificate.
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