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The new Pope Francis documentary is a lucid portrait of a quiet radical

Steering away from hagiography, Wim Wenders’s Pope Francis A Man of His Word presents a stirring case for the pope’s theology.

Pope Francis Attends The Easter Mass and Delivers His Urbi Et Orbi Blessing
Pope Francis delivering his Easter blessing in 2018.
Franco Origlia/Getty Images
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It would seem a tad worrying that Wim Wenders’s documentary about Pope Francis had the full participation of the Vatican. Usually “authorized” documentaries about public figures come off as more hagiography than actual examination of the person’s life and legacy.

But in this case, it’s to the film’s advantage. Francis has not been terribly shy about talking with media and appearing on camera, but most of what the average person gets to hear and see about him is filtered through the broader news media or political commentary, or perhaps religiously oriented analysis.

For Pope Francis A Man of His Word, though, Wenders actually sat down with Francis on several occasions. The interviews form the backbone of the film, mixed with footage of Francis all over the world meeting with refugees, prisoners, children, hospital patients, victims of natural disasters, aid workers, and more.

The result is less biographical documentary and more a lucid and coherent presentation of Francis’s theological framework, with some exploration of how it springs from the man whose name he adopted, the 13th-century St. Francis of Assisi. Pope Francis is charming and engaging, and he speaks with conviction and wit. Pope Francis A Man of His Word isn’t likely to convert any of Francis’s critics, but it might just convince the indifferent that he has something to say to our world.

Pope Francis A Man of His Word isn’t biography so much as embodied theology

Wim Wenders, director of Pope Francis — A Man of His Word, and Pope Francis
Wim Wenders, director of Pope Francis — A Man of His Word, and the pope.
Arturo Delle Donne

Francis is the 266th pope (by some reckonings, anyhow — Roman Catholic history is complicated), and a pope of firsts: the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first Jesuit, and the first to take the name of St. Francis of Assisi.

His namesake, as the film explains, was concerned with many things, but two chiefly: the poor and God’s creation. Most everything in his theology — his concern for the brotherhood of man, for animals, for peace between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades — sprang from these concerns. He chose to live a life of poverty and founded the Franciscan order of monks, who draw their rule of life from his teachings.

The film shows how Francis’s own concerns spring from a similarly oriented set of priorities. In his life prior to becoming pope, which included serving as archbishop of Buenos Aires and a cardinal (a senior leader in the church), he was known for his concern and care for the poor.

That’s about all of the biographical background we get for Francis, and the movie doesn’t seem interested in giving us lots of information. Instead, we get just enough background to help motivate its real aim, which is to show us what he believes and how he lives it.

As the movie presents it, Francis’s lifelong concern for the poor is what drives his proclamations about our responsibility for the environment, articulated in his 2015 encyclical Laudato si, released just months before the United Nations climate change conference in Paris. The poor, he says, are the ones who are most affected by climate change, so our care for the environment must spring not just from obedience to God’s commands to care for his creation but also from our obedience to Christ’s care for the poorest and most vulnerable. It is, he says, “theology in dialogue with science.”

Pope Francis greets an inmate in Philadelphia
Pope Francis greets an inmate in Philadelphia.
Focus Features

Francis’s conversations on camera are wide-ranging. He talks about art and creativity, about the spiritual discipline of listening to others, about observing days of rest, about parents finding time to play with their young children, about women in church leadership, about the scourge of pedophilia and clergy sexual abuse, about finding common ground with Jewish and Muslim leaders in a shared heritage as “children of Abraham.” He praises young people, even when they make mistakes, for not hewing to the “conformist and self-satisfied society” in which they live and instead finding a “revolutionary path,” which he believes St. Francis represents.

“Talk a little, listen a lot, say just enough, and look everyone in the eye,” he says.

Intercut with the interviews is footage of him around the world and, in one particularly poignant early scene, in the Vatican itself, where he preaches a damning sermon about spiritual diseases that afflict the clergy: putting hope in wealth, living without regard for mortality, and having a “lugubrious face” (during which Wenders rather humorously cuts to the extremely sober-looking group of cardinals).

What comes across loud and clear is that, as the subtitle suggests, Francis is a man who means what he says and tries to live by it. He lives simply — or as simply as a pope can — choosing to eschew some of the grander trappings of the papacy and living in the modest Vatican guesthouse rather than the luxurious papal apartments. In one funny sequence, we see his motorcade wending through Washington, DC, with the armored SUVs flanking the comically small popemobile.

Words matter, the movie suggests in narration near the end, but our world is soaked in them. We’ve grown used to our leaders spewing words to obscure the truth. We’ve grown used to “alternative facts.” Leaders who actually live what they proclaim feel increasingly hard to come by. And Pope Francis A Man of His Word is a rebuttal to that model of leadership.

The portrait of Francis the film presents is gently, radically inspiring

Pope Francis greets crowds.
Pope Francis greets crowds.
Focus Features

Pope Francis A Man of His Word is not a critical examination of the man, and some audiences may find his treatment of matters of gender, sexuality, and the clergy molestation scandal in particular to be unsatisfactory. (Some will find his statements too progressive; others will consider them not nearly progressive enough.)

And in the US, Francis has been criticized by the more traditional-leaning wings of the church as well as some political conservatives for his approach to everything from the environment to divorce and remarriage within the church. Pope Francis A Man of His Word is firmly on the pope’s side, the natural effect of how it’s made (and, one assumes, of Wenders’s own Catholic upbringing).

The film tacitly functions as a critique of consumerist, power-hungry leaders, some of whom appear at the end of the film (including brief footage of the pope meeting with world leaders, including both Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump). One sequence features Francis’s address to the joint members of Congress, during which he pleaded on behalf of immigrants and refugees and decried the weapons trade. The camera cuts away repeatedly to close-ups featuring prominent politicians, including professed Catholics Marco Rubio, Paul Ryan, John Kerry, Tim Kaine, and John Boehner (who weeps throughout), as well as non-Catholic leaders such as Cory Booker and Chuck Schumer.

In sequences like this, nothing is stated but everything is implied: Pope Francis presents an alternative way of leading that is often at odds with the path pursued by leaders in so-called “secular” spaces, regardless of their political affiliation. Francis’s views aren’t easily categorized within American political ideologies, and his words and lifestyle challenge everyone.

That may be what’s most remarkable about Pope Francis A Man of His Word. It’s hard to imagine another world leader as prominent as the pope, and especially any Christian leaders, about whom such a film could be made.

Frankly, in a time when the most attention-grabbing figures in Christianity (I say this, with sorrow, as a Christian) are often transparently invested in power, deeply aligned with political interests, and visibly hypocritical in what and whom they choose to condemn, you don’t have to share Francis’s specifically Catholic commitments to see how radical his example is.

Surely Francis’s critics will find much to criticize here, as well. And those who were looking for a toothier, tougher portrait of one of the world’s most important figures will come away disappointed.

But the movie’s portrait of the man is still hard to dismiss. At one point in the film, the pope says that St. Francis’s “life was a sermon,” and Pope Francis A Man of His Word presents its subject in the same way: as someone who preaches and lives an interest in the poorest and weakest, those whom the rest of the world tramples on their way up the ladder to greatness. In a world like ours, where words so often obscure reality, that’s a profoundly revolutionary, power-threatening example.

Pope Francis — A Man of His Word premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in May and opens in theaters on May 18.