'Pope Francis: A Man of His Word': Film Review | Cannes 2018

Heartfelt but sometimes holier-than-thou.
5/18/2018

Director Wim Wenders managed to secure exclusive interviews with the Pope for this ambitious documentary premiering at Cannes.

Even though he’s put out hits and misses, German director Wim Wenders has had an extraordinary career, balancing innovative narrative films like Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire with memorable documentaries The Buena Vista Social Club and Pina. His latest doc, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which premieres at Cannes before a theatrical release from Focus Features on Friday, confirms his ambition and curiosity. The current pope has of course become something of an international hero for his progressive approach to social issues like income inequality, climate change and even gay rights. Wenders’ unique access to the pontiff raises high expectations, which are unfortunately not fully realized. The doc promises to draw an audience all over the world, even though it doesn’t probe as deeply as one might have hoped.

The heart of the film lies in the interviews that Wenders conducted with Francis over a period of many months. These interviews show the pope articulating his own views on the threats to our planet, which obviously do not coincide with those of the current resident of the White House. In addition to his strong environmental stance, Francis makes sharp comments about immigration, declaring that “building walls is not a solution.” His modesty and humor pepper these declarations.

The interviews are appealing enough, if sometimes too bland, but the more engaging passages in the film are those that show Francis out in the world, visiting migrant camps in Italy and Greece, mingling with the poor in his native Buenos Aires, and even spending time with prisoners in the U.S. as well as other countries. Most of this footage is actually part of the Vatican archives, and it is remarkably vivid. Cinematographer Lisa Rinzler also does a fine job in scenes shot specifically for the movie. In Francis’s journeys around the world, we are impressed with his compassion. In one affecting episode in Argentina, he reconnects with an elderly nun whom he had known when he was a much younger cleric there.

To make the film more cinematic, Wenders decided to draw parallels between Francis and his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, who was also known for his devotion to the poor and his reverence for nature. Scenes shot by Rinzler and Wenders in Assisi are exquisite, but the director was not content to leave it at that. He also hired an actor to play Francis in staged scenes filmed in the style of a black-and-white silent movie from the 1920s. (Wenders even shot these scenes using cameras from that era.) Although the scenes are so well photographed that at first we think we might be watching a lost film from the early 20th century, this whole conceit is an unfortunate mistake. Before long the artifice becomes offputting, and the comparisons between the two clerics come to seem terribly belabored.

Nevertheless, it is a pleasure to watch the present-day Francis interact with people all over the world and articulate his hopes for improving the lot of the poor. The film is humane and unobjectionable, but in the end, it isn’t pointed enough to seize the attention of skeptics in the audience.

Production companies: The Palindrome, Centro Televisivo Vaticano, Célestes Images, Solares Fondazione delle arti, Neue Road Movies, Decia Films, Fondazione Solares Suisse, PTS Art's Factory
Director: Wim Wenders
Screenwriters: Wim Wenders, David Rosier
Producers: Samanta Gandolfi Branca, Alessandro Lo Monaco, Andrea Gambetta
Director of photography: Lisa Rinzler
Editor: Maxine Goedicke
Music: Laurent Petitgand
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Special Screenings)

96 minutes