May 22, 2018

Movie review: “Pope Francis – A Man of his Word”

By Andrea Picciotti-Bayer *
Official movie poster for
Official movie poster for

Renewed interest in Catholicism from the most surprising places in America, New York City and Hollywood, signals that a seemingly secular world still yearns to connect with God. From intrigue at the beauty of the vestments used during the Catholic liturgy to a new documentary in theatres about the current Roman Pontiff, the Catholic Church continues to draw the world to the divine. 

Earlier this month, the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York opened its exhibition entitled “Heavenly Bodies: Fashion and the Catholic Imagination” featuring Catholic liturgical vestments on loan from the Vatican.

Lest it be thought that only the bling of Catholicism attracts, Hollywood has helped set the record straight. Wim Wenders’ new documentary, “Pope Francis – A Man of his Word,” debuted last week and presents the simplicity and humility of the Church as personified in her current visible head here on earth.

The idea for the film came from Dario Edoardo Vigano, a cinephile who until recently led the Vatican’s Office of Communications. The Vatican reached out to award-winning director Wenders, offered the pope’s participation in a series of four interviews, opened the Vatican archives, and then gave Wenders creative license.  

Like many adults in the pews of Catholic parishes on Sunday, Wenders grew up Catholic, lapsed in his practice of the faith, and then found his way back. When speaking of his project, he noted his intrigue when the pope took the name Francis after St. Francis of Assisi. The pope’s association of his pontificate with a saint known for humility and spirit of poverty is captured as Wenders intersperses throughout the film black-and-white reenactments of the life of the saint. 

“Pope Francis – A Man of his Word” is not a biographical documentary: Only brief footage of the pope’s tenure as archbishop of Buenos Aires is shown at the beginning of the film. Gathered with thousands of his compatriots in the city’s main square, La Plaza de Mayo, then-Archbishop Jorge Bergoglio urged attendants that it was “better to be united than divided” and asked them to embrace one another as a sign of unity. 

This scene sets the stage for what has come to typify Francis’ pontificate: connecting what is said and heard to what can be done today. For Christians, this means fully believing and living the teachings of Jesus.     

Wenders’ film highlights many of the issues promoted by the Holy Father during these first five years of his pontificate. Numerous one-on-one conversations show the pope’s kind and encouraging direction to show greater concern for the poor, the environment, the bonds of family, and the boundless love of God for each person. 

In between these interviews is footage of Pope Francis in action, including his address to the U.S. Congress, his speech to delegates of the United Nations, and numerous greetings to thousands gathered in their home countries during papal visits.  

What makes “Pope Francis – A Man of his Word” such a delight is the interaction between the pope and people. His words, particularly when speaking in his native Spanish, are filled with the colloquial phrases reflecting a genuine consideration of the daily trials people encounter. When speaking of concern for the poor and hungry to the poor and the hungry living in Brazilian slums, he encourages everyone to “add water to the beans,” a phrase used in the Americas for what to do when unexpected company shows up.  

Scene after scene captures Francis lovingly tracing the sign of the cross on the foreheads of infants and ailing adults, a papal blessing to be sure, but also an act mirroring what is instinctively done by Catholic mothers and fathers. When he visits the imprisoned, his words of consolation, his humility in washing their feet, and his earnest embraces remind us of the common brotherhood we share and the call to be of service to one another. 

The Catholic Church has consistently expressed concern for the suffering of refugees, the poor, the imprisoned, and the unemployed. And Francis reminds us that we are called to continually rediscover the needs of those around us. As he put it, "Tenderness is not weakness, it is fortitude."  

“Pope Francis – A Man of his Word” showcases the humility and poverty of the Catholic Church as personified in Pope Francis. It is yet another timely example of the relevance and attractiveness of the Catholic Church for the modern world.

Andrea Picciotti-Bayer is Legal Advisor for The Catholic Association Foundation. Her legal career has been dedicated to civil rights advocacy.

* Catholic News Agency columns are opinion and do not necessarily express the perspective of the agency.