POPE FRANCIS - A MAN OF HIS WORD – Official Trailer [HD] – In Theaters May 18 by Focus Features

Vision: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Director: Wim Wenders (The Buena Vista Social Club, Paris Texas) Starring: Pope Francis, Ignazio Oliva, Sister María Eufemia Goycoechea 96 minutes

We live in garrulous, aggressive, and voyeuristic times. The rich and famous in our society are under constant media observation by supporters, opponents, and paparazzi, all waiting for the next big soundbite or the next great gesture just as eagerly as for the next big misstep. Those in the limelight fashion themselves accordingly: loud, mercurial, and capricious, never short of an answer, excuse or lie. They adopt the old warrior or showman adage: the best defence is a good offence. Coached by media advisors, they show no personal emotion, no feeling, no deeply held beliefs or any doubt. The advisors make sure these sentiments do not even arise, because they would only disrupt the well-oiled machine of showmanship and power. In the end, there is nothing left of these public personae but their autocratic media façades. These thoroughly masked celebrities come in various forms: lurid chauvinistic big-mouths (Trump), bizarre Renaissance satyrs (Berlusconi), and nervous ex-KGB Tsarevichs (Putin). As they become homogeneous with their masks, it is almost impossible to appeal to the human being behind the façade. These more often than not male political and business leaders—but also increasing numbers of cultural, sports and educational bureaucrats—run today’s shows. Their soundbites and Twitter fragments echo each other; rarely are their utterances credible or worth a second thought.

In Wim Wenders’ film, A Man of His Word, Pope Francis selects his language carefully, sometimes searchingly. Just a few minutes into the film, the viewer realises the striking contrast between the pope’s manner of speaking and the parlance of the political Twitterati. Here is a man who speaks with authority. Indeed, Francis speaks a lot in the film–in public appearances to which Wenders accompanies him with a camera, but also in the interview sections. The pope often speaks for those who have no voice. He speaks for the poor and the deprived—for refugees and prisoners—and those who receive little or primarily negative, sensationalist media attention. Francis adds a human touch wherever he goes. He is courageous not only in his words but also in his outreach: he touches the dying in an African hospital who no longer recognise him, and is himself touched by a child with cancer, speaking with them on the telephone several times. Unlike many politicians who pretend to be advocates of the people, Francis does not engage in any presumptuous rhetoric. The “Pontiff” (original meaning: bridge builder)[1] speaks authentically of and for the neglected and exploited because he speaks frequently with them. He listens to them. It is for this reason that he repeats with authority the ancient admonition by Jesus, addressing the super-rich as well as the bargain-hunters: “You cannot serve two masters, God and the money” (Matt 6:24).

Just like the medieval Saint Francis of Assisi, whose name he has chosen as pope, the Pontiff lends his voice to silent nature. He encourages his listeners to become advocates of creation which (through economic depletion, climate and landscape destruction, and genetic manipulation), in (post-) modernity, is too often degraded to a commodity for human purposes and greed. Like the saint, the pope—with a fascinating mixture of humility and praise—relates to “sister water” and “brother wind,”[2] reminding the audience that our own physical nature connects us with the environment in intimate ways. We become aware that in many languages the words “nature” and “matter” are etymologically reminiscent of birth and maternal care (nature from natus, being born; matter from mater, mother). The pope’s theological ecology—which takes up basic ideas of Franciscan as well as Romantic nature discourses and also modern scientific research—is published in the papal encyclical “Laudato Si” (“Praise be to Thee”),[3] whose title is borrowed from St. Francis’ “Canticle of the Creatures.” [4]

In Wenders' documentary, the pope rarely speaks about himself—but when he does, he speaks with caution and modesty. He is aware of the pitfalls of the infallibility dogma of his church—a dogma he approaches with his dialogical style, but also with humour. He seeks conversation with people from all walks of life; he practices a dialogical existence. In the film, Francis consults with farm workers, nuns, and doctors as well as with cardinals. He is engaged in ecumenical exchanges with Protestant and Orthodox bishops and in interfaith dialogue with representatives of Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist communities. But where does Francis the man get his strength from? Is it not often lonely at the top of a worldwide organisation that, owing to its size and historical and cultural impact, has arguably more soft power than Google and Hollywood? What is unfortunately missing in Wenders’ film is a look at the private person and their environment. With whom does Francis have breakfast? Who washes the stole for him? Who gives him encouraging words when he has a bad day? Who offers him comfort when he meets with those masked and utterly boring representatives of the powers that be? How did he develop his own basic optimism and his belief in a benevolent God? His hope for a world that, for God’s sake, should not be meaningless and bleak? Who supports him? What makes his gaze so radiant?

The “Papa”—as he is known in Italian and Spanish, audible throughout the film—is a comforter and consoler. He comes across as a benevolent paternal (arche-)type; he recalls the Abba, a term the historical Jesus used to address God, the “Daddy” (Mark 14:36). When the pope lands in the Philipines after a devastating hurricane, he speaks to and remains silent with the mourners and the homeless. The cinematography conveys both his horror and his compassion. These are poignant moments: when even the “earthly representative of Christ”[5] is overwhelmed by the destruction and silenced before the suffering, but without condoning it—without any attempt to argue theologically for a God who stands above the suffering, as if human pain were some subordinate element in a grand metaphysical plan. If there is any comfort in these film sequences at all, it arrives perhaps in the revelation that even the pope has no consolation at this moment of horror except a hug and a despairing look.

The film also documents the Pope’s efforts to renew the Catholic Church in a Franciscan spirit. And it shows the enormous internal resistance to this project from some parts of the church. How do you reform a 2000-year-old institution which, since the days of the Roman Emperor Constantine 1700 years ago, has been embroiled with secular powers in the Christian West, but also in many colonial contexts? How do you change an institution led by a steep hierarchy of privileged old men, many of whom seriously believe that their privileges are God-given? Within the last five years, Francis has already achieved much: he has committed his church to the course of social and ecological justice.[6] He has called back the hardliners who refuse to give the sacrament to divorced believers. He has encouraged ecumenical collaboration. He has protested against the death penalty and inhumane justice and has argued that the mercy of God in Jesus is not just for Catholics and Christians but for all people, including the worst criminals. Francis has not fully disclosed the corruption of the “Instituto per le Opere di Religione,” the Vatican Bank, but has committed the bank to the terms and conditions of a normal European financial institution (an initiative started by John Paul II and Benedict). He has spoken out against the condemnation of homosexuals. He lives in the Vatican’s guest house, not the Apostolic Palace, and he drives a Ford Focus.

So, is everything fine now in the Roman Church? It's a start, but a lot remains to be done. For now, Francis upholds the priestly celibacy which forces so many Catholic priests into mendacity. He takes an extremely conservative stance on birth control and abortion. He has not yet promoted the ordination of women. He abhors sexual violence by priests, and as the head of his church has to answer questions about institutional responsibility and transparency which visibly upset him. But does Francis see the connections, e.g. between lack of birth control, overpopulation, poverty, and environmental degradation; or the connections between oppressive sexual mores and sexual violence? Unfortunately, Wim Wenders and his film team did not follow up on these issues.

Maybe they did not press these issues for a reason. For there is a well-founded theory that the Pope knows very well about these contradictions but does not always disclose them in the media and does not position himself clearly on some issues in order to avoid a direct clash with religious reactionaries, or even risk a split of the church. A direct confrontation or a schism would jeopardise the entire reform project whose ultimate scope as the Pope envisages it can only be guessed. Does that mean that there is no real transparency and only sporadic authenticity at the top of the Roman Church? Let’s not forget that the Pope is a human being, not a god. Maybe Wenders could have concentrated more on this dilemma. The documentary includes the years when Pope Francis was still Jorge Bergoglio and Jesuit Superior in Argentina and when the Argentine military junta ruled. But this time is glossed over by the film. Should he have resisted the dictators more? Did he adequately protect all, including the radical padres, during the “Dirty War?” On the other hand, in a direct confrontation with the fascist dictators, would Jorge/Francis not have maneuvered the church into a situation that would have blocked the possibility for concrete intervention on behalf of the persecuted? Protestant and Catholic Church leaders in the former Eastern Bloc faced a similar dilemma vis-a-vis Stalinist dictators. Let those who have similar responsibility and do everything right throw the first stone. Wim Wenders’ film is neither comprehensively biographical nor an investigative documentary—that is the film’s weakness as well as its strength.

Finally, a word about the film’s aesthetics. In almost all of his films, Wim Wenders is a master of what one might call mystical melancholy. This affects his landscapes and interiors, but especially the faces of his film protagonists. In A Man of His Word, it is also Wenders’ own narrative voice, evocative and sometimes almost worn, which produces a mystical, slightly elegiac effect. The monochrome scenes that blend episodes of the saint from Assisi’s life with today’s ecclesiastical events, however, seem strangely misplaced. The pictures that arguably leave the greatest impression, are those in which the pope meets people face to face and in which his own face shines—smiling, admonishing, and mischievous. When Francis drives through the crowd and the onlookers sit on rooftops and in trees like Zacchaeus once did (Luke 19:4), the boundaries between documentary and feature film and memories of biblical readings blur. And then, suddenly, there's a frightening cinematic inter-text when Francis is shown on board a plane, flying over Latin American slums, looking worried and in deep thought out of the window. In Leni Riefenstahl's notorious film Triumph of the Will (1935), it was Hitler’s brutally determined gaze that looked down on people below him. It seems that Wenders presents us here, concisely and forcefully, with a pictorial meditation on true and false Messianism.

Yet, the overall mood of the Franciscan film is one of optimism and, indeed, cheerfulness regarding the “weak messianic power” (Walter Benjamin),[7] which is not effective through violence and rhetoric, but through conviction and bearing witness. The Czech Marxist philosopher Milan Machovec—one of the great biographers of the historical Jesus and one of the inspirational figures of the Prague Spring and the Velvet Revolution—once said that the success of the message of Jesus (and, cum grano salis, that of St. Francis) was not “based on any superiority of his theoretical programme but on the fact that he himself was identical with his programme.”[8] If orthopraxy (doing the right thing) validates orthodoxy (saying or writing the right thing), seen through the lens of Wim Wenders, Pope Francis comes pretty close.

Norman P. Franke is a Hamilton based scholar (MA, Hamburg University; Ph.D. Humboldt University, Berlin), poet and film-maker. He is a Research Fellow at the University of New Castle, New South Wales. He has published widely about 18th century literature, German-speaking exile literature (Albert Einstein, Else Lasker-Schüler, Karl Wolfskehl) eco-poetics and at the intersection of religion and poetry. Norman's poetry has been broadcasted on radio and published in anthologies in Austria, German, New Zealand, Switzerland and the UK [2017/18 finalist at the Aesthetica (UK) and Feldkircher (Austria) literature contests].

[1] Pontiff; from Latin pontifex, s. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/pontifex

[2] https://www.catholic.org/prayers/prayer.php?p=183

[3] http://w2.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20150524_enciclica-laudato-si.html

[4] For the term and the theological context in a Franciscan tradition s. Ilia Delio, A Franciscan View of Creation: Learning to Live in a Sacramental World (Bonaventure, N.Y.: The Franciscan Institute, 2003)

[5] For this and related Papal titles see Charles Herbermann et. al., Vicar of Christ. New York: Robert Appleton Company 1913

[6] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/mar/17/pope-francis-harmony-return-to-vatican


[7] German: “eine schwache messianische Kraft”. In: Walter Benjamin:, Über den Begriff der Geschichte (On the Concept of History) Werke und Nachlass, Kritische Gesamtausgabe, Vol. 19. Gérard Raulet, ed. (Berlin: Suhrkamp, 2010). Contains all drafts and manuscripts of Über den Begriff der Geschichte and includes a detailed commentary. The term ‘weak messianic force’ appears in Chapter 2 of the manuscripts which Benjamin himself could not finalize.

For an English translation of On the Concept of History s. http://members.efn.org/~dredmond/ThesesonHistory.html

[8] tr. N.P.F. In: Milan Machovec, Jesus für Atheisten. With an introduction by Helmut Gollwitzer; Paul Kruntorad tr, 1st edition (Stuttgart, Berlin: Kreuz Verlag 1972) Original title: Ježíš pro moderního člověka (Prag: Samizdat) 17