Film Review | "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word"

Friday, June 1, 2018

by Jeffrey Martin '04, '05 (M.A.)

When I was in high school, the local archbishop was scheduled to visit our school and preside over a Mass. Those of us who were going to participate in the celebration from the altar — readers, servers and members of the liturgical chorus — were given a crash course in how to behave in the company of a church official. And while some of the lessons were as formal and droning as one would expect, one piece of advice was strikingly down to earth.

“If you forget what to call him,” our principal, an Augustinian friar, told us, “just call him ‘Father.’ At the end of the day, he’s still a priest.”

These words echoed in my mind as I watched Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, the intimate, unprecedented documentary that invites viewers into an audience with the first Jesuit to lead the Roman Catholic Church. As ethereal and sacrosanct as the office is, His Holiness has made a point to make his a papacy of the people, and that mindset is abundantly clear in the film.

Through a series of interview segments, director Wim Wenders allows Pope Francis to share his thoughts on some of the biggest issues facing the world today, from poverty to climate change to social justice. In each instance, the pontiff shows his deep concern for his fellow man.

“World poverty is a scandal,” he shares. “Eighty percent of the world’s wealth is owned by twenty percent of the people, and the rest have to live from the scraps left behind. Can’t we all be a little poorer [for the sake of those who need it]?”

Interspersed with the interview footage are clips from the pope’s travels around the world during the first five years of his papacy. He comforts victims of a typhoon in the Philippines. He visits sick children in a hospital in the Central African Republic. He speaks with the faithful in Philadelphia and world leaders at the United Nations in New York. Through it all, his message revolves around the Golden Rule: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.

This isn’t to say that Pope Francis trades only in the warm and fuzzies. In addition to his rebuke of commercial wealth, he takes mankind to task for the plight we face from climate change, saying that each of us is responsible for having “plundered” and “abused” the Earth. He also speaks frankly about the refugee crisis, the Church’s sex abuse scandal, women’s and LGBTQ rights and more.

The film is at its best when Wenders, as a director, stays out of the way. In the interview segments, he frames the Pope in a close up, looking directly at the camera. This allows the audience to feel as if they are sitting in a chair across from him, comforted by his bright eyes, welcoming smile and thoughtful speech. It simultaneously humanizes the pontiff and fills you with awe in his presence. When Wenders plays more auteur than interviewer, drawing connections to the pope’s patron saint by reenacting key moments of Saint Francis’ life in flickering, black and white vignettes, he distracts the viewer and himself from the heart of the film.

Though the documentary is feature-length, it leaves you wishing for far more time with Pope Francis. You want to hear his opinion on more global issues. You want him to inspire you to action on more fronts. You want him to give you one more homily. And that’s a very, very good thing. This is a film that will invigorate and encourage all who see it, whether you are Catholic or not, Jesuit or not, believer or not. Because Pope Francis wants us to treat each other as brothers and sisters. And he practices what he preaches. He’s a man of his word.

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