I really wanted to hate Pope Francis: A Man of His Word but couldn’t bring myself to do it. In fact, I ended up kind of…uh…loving it. What’s worse, by the time the final credits rolled, one tiny tear managed to roll its way down my cheek. Much to my resentment.
The thing is, it’s the kind of documentary I usually hate. The ones I love—The Sorrow and the Pity being a prime example—unfold a subject in all its complexity, discovering the evil that can sometimes result from good actions and the goodness that can survive wicked ones, and all the other surprises that life springs on us. Pope Francis doesn’t do any of this. Its director, the German-born but globally active Wim Wenders, fell in love with his subject before making the film, remained in love during the four-day papal interview that is its core, and lost not a bit of his admiration through many months of editing. As he said in his interview with Commonweal (“Worthy of His Name,” June 15), “I loved this man and what he stood for, so anybody who expects a film critical of the church or its policies is looking for the wrong movie.” I wasn’t exactly expecting adverse criticism of the church, but I did hope for a complex engagement with Francis’s various stands on various issues. What I got instead, and what I succumbed to, was a triumph of personality.
Wenders shot his interview with a device called the interrotron, pioneered by Errol Morris in his great documentary The Fog of War. In conventional documentaries the interviewees are positioned in front of the camera in such a way that their eyes never directly meet the gaze of the viewer; instead they look at the person asking the questions. But Wenders wanted to “share [the pope’s] eyes with the audience,” and the interrotron creates the illusion of eye-to-eye contact between Francis and each audience member. In effect, the director is giving us a private audience with the pope, as if we were sitting only inches away from him. On a movie theater’s big screen the effect proves to be not distracting but enveloping. We float within the aura of Francis.
The content of the interviews isn’t new if we’ve been paying attention to Francis’s past statements about capitalism, poverty, the environment, homosexuality, and the refugee crisis. But the physical presence magnified by the camera seems to certify and burnish the pope’s message. He never gives the impression of trying to cajole you into agreement but instead presents you with his entire self as testament to his beliefs. The usual talking heads on our various screens are trying to get you to see things their way. But Francis conveys the impression that his way has room enough for your way and vice-versa. Certainly there have been great commentators—I’m thinking of Swift, Orwell, Mencken—who have blessed humanity with their corrosive and necessary negatives, their anathemas on greed and violence. The pope takes aim at these same targets, but his presence bespeaks a constant Yes, a cherishing of the good things of the earth that greed and violence would destroy.
I don’t mean to imply that in this film the pontiff’s words count for nothing and his image for everything. When he counsels a gathering of cardinals not to succumb to a “spiritual Alzheimer’s Disease,” or when, at a Holocaust memorial service, he apostrophizes all humankind with the words “Adam, who convinced you that you are god?” his language is powerful indeed: but because these words are spoken by a man of such compelling presence—and because that presence is cinematically magnified—we may feel that the words are being directed at us personally. I’m pretty sure Wenders, in his initial conferences with the pope, felt this himself and was determined to convey it in his film, a work that he now calls his favorite, and one to which his entire career led him.