MPAA Rating: PG
USCCB Rating: A-II
Reel Rating: 3 out of 5 reels
In The Catholic Church and Conversion, G.K. Chesterton famously quipped that “we do not really want a religion that is right where we are right. What we want is a religion that is right where we are wrong.” This phrase came to mind constantly as I watched Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, a new documentary from German filmmaker Wim Wenders. In many ways, it was wonderful to see the leader of Christ’s Church on the big screen preaching the gospel. At the same time, Pope Francis—through Wenders’ editing and narration—offers precious little that any reasonable person of any faith, or of no faith at all, would disagree with or find challenging.
The film begins with the familiar story of St. Francis of Assisi, who started a “revolution” in the Middle Ages, and then connects this narrative to the Pope who took his name and, we’re told, has embarked on a revolution of a similar nature. Outside this simple plot, it is difficult to qualify this picture as a documentary or even a narrative. Most of the content consists of an extended interview in which the Holy Father speaks directly to the audience. He moves freely among his favorite topics: the poor, the disabled, the environment, refugees, and world peace. This soliloquy is interspliced with clips from pastoral trips to the Central African Republic, Israel, Brazil, the United States, and many others. Thus, it represents well the stream-of-consciousness nature of his casual remarks, using footage as a visual tool.
The greatest joy of A Man of His Word is the opportunity to see the Pope close in high definition on a 40-foot screen. He speaks to the audience as a close friend, with sweeping hand gestures and expressive facial language. It felt like Peter Seewald’s excellent series of interviews with Benedict XVI: personal, intimate, and trusting. Wenders’ footage is excellent in illustrating the urgency of the Pope’s words. It is one thing to read about the suffering of the poor; it is quite another to see Pope Francis embrace an emaciated African child or console a Filipino grandmother recently made homeless by a typhoon.
My greatest frustration with A Man of His Word is that nothing in this film challenges the established narrative of Pope Francis found in most of the media; quite the contrary, it relishes the image. In the many, many words uttered by the Pope, I can only recall one phrase that would make a secularist or progressive squirm: “The macho and feminist movements will not bring reconciliation between men and women. The movements based on reciprocity and complementarity will do that.”
There are, of course, numerous instances of Pope Francis preaching against abortion, euthanasia, and gender theory – in addition to his many reminders that the Devil and Hell are important realities. None these are mentioned. This is most likely through the intervention of Wenders, who was given final cut privilege by the Vatican, and his fingerprints are readily evident. What emerges is not a fully genuine image of the Holy Father but a limited, cropped view at best—and a self-serving piece of propaganda at worst.
The most disheartening section was probably intended to be the climax. The film ends where it began, at an interfaith prayer summit in 2016 on the steps of the Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi. The Pope discusses how all people of goodwill—no matter their religion or lack thereof—seek love and peace. Nothing he says is false, but it is edited in such a way that one could imagine a Unitarian minister saying the exact same words. It brings to mind these further words from Chesterton, which follow the quote above:
These people merely take the modern mood, with much in it that is amiable and much that is anarchical and much that is merely dull and obvious, and then require any creed to be cut down to fit that mood. But the mood would exist even without the creed. They say they want a religion to be social, when they would be social without any religion. They say they want a religion to be practical, when they would be practical without any religion. They say they want a religion acceptable to science, when they would accept the science even if they did not accept the religion. They say they want a religion like this because they are like this already. They say they want it, when they mean that they could do without it.
It must be admitted that I come to this picture with a bias and lens that even most Catholics do not have. I spend my days teaching theology, discussing church documents, and reviewing films with spiritual themes and religious perspectives. I am constantly inundated by religious commentary—both thoughtful and ignorant. Thus, I finally concluded that Pope Francis: A Man of His Word was giving me corn flakes when I wanted steak and eggs. I like documentaries that are nuanced and multi-perspective—and this did not deliver.
Yet corn flakes to a starving person could mean the difference between life and death. Despite a mediocre response on my part, I encourage people—especially non-Catholics—to see the film. They will find a man who beautifully explains many essential moral imperatives of the Christian faith and attempts to live these commands in his own life. They will be invited to seek God. It is hard to imagine anyone leaving the theater thinking Catholicism represents a negative influence on the world. For this reason alone, I’d rather they see Pope Francis: A Man of His Word than almost any other film this year.