By: Steve Pulaski
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is an adequately directed, comprehensive look at what six years of a Christ-like, socially conscious Vatican leader has looked like. Its unmistakable cries for dealing with abject poverty in a resource-rich world and condemnation of a sickeningly wasteful culture will only be heard by those well-informed about such issues, but that doesn't mean they don't deserve another earnest showcase.
Directed by Wim Wenders, the much-praised auteur documentarian behind Buena Vista Social Club and several others, the film looks at Pope Francis' many beliefs, which have done their part in propelling the Catholic Church forward in trying times. Woven through the documentary is the theme of humility, reflected in the Pope's desire to sacrifice material possessions in hopes of leading by example that we can all get by with substantially less things. In the opening minutes of the film, the Pope makes a claim that will certainly anger any Catholic millionaires listening: Jesus said we cannot serve two masters — either we serve money or we serve Him.
Wenders is granted unprecedented access to the Pope, who was once known as Jorge Mario Bergoglio upon being born into a large family in Buenos Aires, Argentina. Bergoglio took the name of "Francis" from the Saint of Assisi. St. Francis committed to uniting people with both God and nature, serving as an "apostle of the ear." He seldom spoke, listened often, and adopted an empathetic mindset. He foresaw humanity's detachment from God's green Earth, and Bergoglio felt not only an ideological connection with the Saint, but a moral one insofar to broaden the minds of many to have them be reacquainted with God, nature, and the essence of community. Throughout the documentary, dramatizations of St. Francis' life are depicted, establishing a juxtaposition of two lives dedicated to serving a higher power in selfless ways.
In one of his many stories told directly to Wenders' camera, he recalls seeing a gated community in Argentina back in 1970, something he had never seen before. Today, thousands of similarly exclusive neighborhoods exist all over the world — many in America — and it's one of the many things he believes is disconnecting us as humans from our neighbor and God. Through many sit-down interviews in addition to speeches delivered far and wide around the world, the Pope spreads awareness regarding issues of income inequality, pedophilia within the Catholic Church, the destruction of Mother Nature, and the dangers of a culture indifferent to human suffering.
One of the Pope's many principles is knowing and abiding by the "three T's" that serve as the cornerstones of a person's dignity, so he tells the camera as well as a large portion of South Americans: "trabajo" (work), "tierra" (land), and "techo" (roof). These things have been increasingly harder to obtain, with a rise in unemployment across many impoverished nations that are ostensibly setting young, idealistic men and women up to fail. The Pope suggests one of the greatest joys in life is "imitating God with your hands" in the sense of using your God-given tools to great something in order to forge a life for you and your family.
The Pope makes a compelling argument in the way he outlines how many of the issues we as a planet are experiencing today are spiritual in nature. Whether you believe that to be true or not, it's not surprising why his message has attracted attention from non-Catholics and secular humanists as well. His rejection of the "ivory tower" stereotype that has plagued past Popes and the Catholic Church as a whole is noble, along with his desire to call attention to young people by speaking on issues that move them in the same way "the Golden Rule" did back when most of us believed/lived by it.
It's no secret that Pope Francis' beliefs and speeches have put him at odds with his own base, who have denounced him as everything from a socialist to the anti-Christ himself in an apparent move to discredit the Catholic leader in the name of their Lord and savior who would've most certainly supported his efforts. Wenders curiously never shows the intense opposition that has been a part of the first Jesuit/South American Pope's papacy, rendering A Man of His Word a hopelessly uncritical look at an eminently controversial figure. The patchwork in Wenders' narration also serves in making this film a bit too accessible in its theme when a less constructed and more impressionistic approach would've went a long way.
If nothing else, Pope Francis gets us to confront the sins of which we might have never found ourselves responsible. When you see third-world countries literally built on a surface of trash with incredibly contaminated waters, the inescapable ways Wenders' camera lingers on these atrocities makes them difficult to ignore. Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is admittedly too flowery in its overall hagiographic portrayal of the current Bishop of Rome, negating further look into the Obama-comparisons of a man who knows how to mobilize thousands to follow him while remaining questionably effective in a broader sense. Once more, there's still value in a film that attempts to concretize a larger-than-life figure's dense beliefs and Wenders' documentary isn't a half-bad attempt despite serious omissions.