Disappointed, for professional and for personal reasons. This lapsed Catholic grew up in Europe and was raised by Jesuits at one of Paris’s private schools. I’m not a believer, anymore, but I’ve remained a Catholic, existentially speaking, the Vatican being a kind of cultural guide, my go-to moral authority in a Europe that’s sometimes hardly recognizable. When I was baptized, I was named after Saint Francis.
Pope Francis strikes me as a more unifying figure than his predecessor, Benedict, an opaque reactionary who interrupted his mandate in mid-flight in an undignified manner. The former smiles more, he crusades for the environment, little cars take him to his meet-and-greets, he’s out to prove the point that you don’t need a lot of riches to be happy. Like his predecessors, he washes the feet of prisoners. Unlike them, he’s more earthy–protocol be damned. So when I heard that Wim Wenders was bringing a documentary to the Cannes Festival about him, “Pope Francis: A man of his word,” I was clearly curious. Hard to forget Wenders’s 2011 tour de force “Pina,” an extraordinary breathing, living document about choreographer Pina Bausch, which saw Wenders pushing the limits of the documentary genre. My expectations with this here new documentary were, it bears repeating, high.
Did I have the right expectation in believing Wenders had shot a biopic? Do I regret that not a single moment is spent on Francis’s personal life? No, it’s not that, either. Wenders, who has had the privilege of sitting with the Pope for a series of on-camera discussions, talks about the Pope’s push for more environmental awareness, the poor, migrants, we’re shown countless speeches given by him (at the U.N., before Congress, some footage when he was a bishop in Buenos Aires–his real name is Jorge Mario Bergoglio. There are scenes of him visiting Tacloban after the hurricane left a trail of devastation across the region (“I have no words,” he tells the audience), visiting the sick in a hospital in a war-torn African country, answering reporters’ questions, all charisma and humility, on a plane.
Wenders cuts these scenes with the interview the two had, in what looks like the gardens of the Vatican. The Pope talks about his favorite “three Ts,” Tierra, Trabajo y Techo, which in English translate to “land, work and housing,” and how we should aspire to imitate God through our actions. In addition to live action footage and interviews, Wenders also directed black and white reenactments of the life of Saint Francis, scenes in which he is shown in his monk’s habits, reading the scriptures, walking through nature, in an effort to draw parallels between Saint Francis’s love of animals, and nature, and Pope Francis’s own work in bringing attention to the ecological disasters man keeps unleashing upon the earth.
Technically speaking “Man” works, obviously, and why shouldn’t it? Wenders has been making movies since 1967. But this documentary is a fail. The Pope speaks directly into the camera, which is jarring, as if he were communicating his message directly to the adoring masses. Where is the filmmaker’s hand in this? In spite of all the work that obviously went into this, Wenders spliced footage with an interview and a reenactment, slapped some music on there, added his own narration, for a grand total of zero. Nothing new is learned, there is no real structure, it’s expeditious, at times. In one of the sequences, he shows the Pope returning to South America a year after creating a kind of regional forum to help alleviate poverty. The expectation was that, we’d find out what progress, if any, was made, but more to the point, what the Pope’s reaction would’ve been, his response. None to be had, sadly, Wenders moving on to the next photo-op.
I’m not sure which is more insipid, the film itself, or Pope Francis, as rendered by Wenders on screen. Or maybe it’s Wim Wenders who’s not aging well, at all?