Pope Francis, Framed

Pope Francis, Framed September 20, 2018
Frame from ‘Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word’ (screenshot)

What you notice most when you see Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word is the face of Jorge Mario Bergoglio. You feel as if the highest moral authority on the planet is speaking directly to you. Not really speaking to you, though: challenging you, daring you, provoking you. With his eyes: every time he smiles or frowns. That is why Wim Wenders’ new documentary about the pontiff can be considered a kind of 21st-century Western equivalent of the Orthodox icons of Christ. A kind of portrait of Francisco the Master, in the style of the image of Christ didaskalos.

Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word, released on March 13, 2018, isn’t a conventional biography of the man who became the first Pope from the southern hemisphere – not to mention the first Jesuit Bishop of Rome. To the extent that the German director Wenders defines the documentary rather as a “personal trip” with Bergoglio. “I wanted him to speak instead of making a film about his origins,” says Wenders. “It’s not an autobiographical film, but rather a biography of his ideas; it’s a movie with him, more than about him.”

And this is precisely what it feels like. Although the Vatican granted Winders unprecedented access not only to the Pope but also to the vast archive of television images of the Holy Father in his many speeches and travels in Rome and around the world, what shocks most about the movie is its message that Francis’ person doesn’t matter as much as his ideas.

Just like the way in which icons of Christ command the gaze of those who contemplate them only to direct it to a reality beyond. The first five minutes of the documentary, even, have not much to do with Bergoglio, precisely, but with the man whose name and example he took when he assumed the chair of Peter: Francis of Assisi, after whose footprints Bergoglio has also responded to Christ’s call to “repair my Church”.

The verbal messages of the documentary aren’t really new, for the most part. The accusations and invitations to which we’ve become accustomed from Francis in these five years of his pontificate aren’t lacking, of course, and their freshness still manages to surprise. Indictments such as “a Church that puts its hope in the wealth is not of Jesus”, for example. Or “all of us – that is, all of us – are responsible” for the “throwaway society” in which we’ve wound up in the 21st century, and for the “globalization of indifference”.

Pope: “Tenderness is not weakness” (screenshot)

“You can always add more water to the frijoles”

But beyond the content of these already mythical phrases, what’s most striking is the way in which the Pope says them, and the way in which Winders focuses on him. With very close shots which feature nothing other than Francis’ face, with details so clear that you can see even the brightness of his eyes or the fabric of his white skullcap. And with a tone of voice so slow and so clear that it is impossible not to be convinced that this man really lives what he preaches.

But then, what is the lesson of the movie? It’s all well and good to be able to see the leader of the world’s Catholics closer than ever, but if you’re not a believer, the close-ups captivate only up to a certain point. And Winders, precisely, says he wanted to make a documentary accessible to all, focusing rather on the responses of the Pope to the urgent challenges facing the world today, such as social justice, immigration, ecology, economic inequality, materialism or the role of the family.

I keep thinking of some words from the film that Bergoglio spoke during his visit to the Varginha favela in Rio de Janeiro in 2013. To solve the hunger of so many brothers and sisters in the world today, the Pope said on that occasion, we all need to do something, and to share even the little that we might have. “You can always add more water to the frijoles, Francis observed, in that jovial and down-to-earth manner that he’s made his trademark. And, after seeing the documentary by Wenders, that’s precisely what you want to do. For real.

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