Film Review: Pope Francis: A Man of His Word

Revealing portrait of Pope Francis five years into his term.
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Elected five years ago this May, Pope Francis is the leader of the Roman Catholic Church and its most recognizable figure. Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is an opportunity for him to present his views to a wide public. Speaking directly to the camera, he also addresses several of the key issues facing the Church.

In a brief but distracting narrative frame, director Wim Wenders gives a history of Francis of Assisi, who abandoned his wealth for a vow of poverty in the 13th century. Considered a patron saint of animals and the environment, he was also known for seeking peace with the Muslims during the Crusades.

The saint is an inspiration for Pope Francis, who is seen in archival footage addressing a street rally in Buenos Aires in 1999, when he was Archbishop Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Church elders at the time considered Francis of Assisi a dangerous revolutionary. Pope Francis faces the same intransigence from the church hierarchy today.

In his voiceover, Wenders assesses the Pope’s accomplishments. He notes he is the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, and the first to take the name Francis.

Despite its religious trappings, this is as close to a secular film as a documentary about a pope can get. Wenders ignores Roman Catholic rituals and traditions, includes almost nothing about dogma or doctrine, and barely acknowledges prayer.

Instead, Francis talks about moral and philosophical issues that affect everyone, believers, non-Christians, even atheists. How do we live today? What is our responsibility to the poor? How should we protect the environment? How does inequality shape our day-to-day lives?

Seated in offices, gardens and living rooms, Francis talks in a calm, unhurried, reassuring manner, the camera in close on his face. He has a commanding serenity and conviction.

The Roman Catholic Church has been shaken by sex and finance scandals, upheavals in Africa and Asia, and long-term structural problems that date back centuries. Francis speaks briefly about sex abuse and the place of women in the Church, accepting blame and pledging improvements.

But the Pope has broader interests. In his first interview as pontiff, he calls for “a poor church for poor people.” Asked whether homosexuals should be excluded from the Church, he replies, “Who am I to judge?” He talks of building bridges instead of walls to solve the refugee crisis. He warns of being enslaved by money, ties income inequality to the degradation of the environment, and says we are all responsible for a culture of waste.

Not everyone is willing to hear what Francis has to say. He continues to reach out to religious and political leaders, but more importantly to the poor and dispossessed. It is in his interactions with orphans, patients, prisoners, refugees, the elderly and disabled that his power becomes most apparent. With his words of love and acceptance, he has become a source of hope and joy for millions.

No pope before has granted the kind of access the filmmakers here received. Despite its flaws, Pope Francis is filled with moments that bring the pontiff and his message to life.

Click here for cast and crew information.