Deadline’s portrait and video studio at the Cannes Film Festival kicked off eight talent-filled days on the Croisette with visits by Arctic director Joe Penna and actors Mads Mikkelsen and Maria Thelma Smaradottir; Michael Shannon and Sofia Boutella fr…
The Vatican asked Wenders to make a film about the Pontiff — and after that, didn’t question the filmmaker about a thing.
Wim Wenders is a sophisticated man of cinema, a nine-time Cannes Palme d’Or contender (he won for “Paris, Texas”) who led the 1989 jury that gave Steven Soderbergh the Palme d’Or over Spike Lee. (He says he was not the architect of that collective decision.) The graduate of the ’70s German New Wave who has close ties to America has shown deep spirituality in such films as Cannes Best Director-winner “Wings of Desire,” “Faraway, So Close,” and “The Salt of the Earth.”
Still, choosing Wenders to direct a documentary about the Holy Father did not look obvious at first. It turns out that Wenders was raised in a Catholic family where “faith was important,” he told me at Cannes. He admired his father, a doctor who “lived life and his profession as a believer, he loved people and was always there for anybody who was sick.”
More recently, Wenders was struck by the joyful way his father embraced death, and having studied other religions and turned Protestant, he turned back to the faith that had once inspired him to consider becoming a priest. “I look at Christianity and Judaism as wonderful things in my spiritual life,” he said, “which I firmly believe in.”
Unlike Wenders’ three Oscar-nominated documentaries, this time he did not come up with the idea of exploring the arts via Cuban music (“The Buena Vista Social Club”), dancer Pina Bausch (3-D “Pina”) or Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado (“The Salt of the Earth”). In this case, it was the Vatican’s idea — specifically, Msgr. Dario Edoardo Viganò, a cinephile who until recently led the Vatican office of Communications, which he was trying to reform.
The Vatican asked Wenders: “Would you imagine making a movie?” Said Wenders, “Yes, I could imagine, I love and am very impressed by the man. Especially as they made it clear they would not interfere with the conception or production of the film.”
Wenders fell for him the second he first came out on the St. Peters balcony and took the name Pope Francis. “I was shocked, I didn’t think it was possible that a Pope would take that name. That electrified me and that connected me to him. I had to explain to an audience what was special about that.”
The Vatican wanted the producers to finance and create the movie. They would offer the Pope’s participation, open their archives, and give Wenders carte blanche. “They wanted to see it, but never to censor it,” he said. “They never said anything. Actually, I wish they would say something.” When Wenders send them his written concept, he got only positive feedback: “‘You do the film you think you want to do.’ At some point I realized that it was quite a responsibility,”
The Vatican even let him use never-before-seen archive footage of the Pontiff lecturing his cardinals about the diseases of the world that could not only afflict others but interfere with their spirituality as well. “This is a crucial scene,” he said, admitting he was afraid the Vatican might object. “You see from these faces that some of them are really shocked. Some faces are: ‘Good, this is why we chose you.’ It’s both. Some people were like a hurricane was blowing in their faces.” It stayed in.
Wenders follows the Pope as he travels the globe giving speeches, meeting the poor, and greeting them as cordially as he did Wenders’ crew each time he sat down for a total of four interviews over four years. Pope Francis addresses the camera, in Spanish. Wenders sent his questions to the Vatican, but got no comment. “The pope never hesitated to answer any of them with the same frankness, the same spontaneity,” he said,. “He was very present, to have a man who didn’t have a phone, who didn’t look at an assistant or anybody, he was just all there in front of the camera, and answered the question, eye to eye, face to face.”
What saves the movie from lengthy speeches and lectures from the Pope about how we should save the planet, care for our fellow human beings, accept homosexuality, and follow the Golden Rule, is a black-and-white silent film within the film about the Pope’s namesake, the 12th-century ascetic St. Francis of Asissi, who took a vow of poverty. The re-enactments look like found classic footage. (Wenders also considered Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 “The Flowers of St. Francis” and 1989 docudrama “Francesco,” which starred Mickey Rourke rolling around in snow, his tattoos visible.)
He wanted to keep his documentary on the lean side. “You couldn’t make a luxurious film about a man who lives a simple honest life and preaches,” he said. “We had to do with less. We had to make as little a movie as possible, and prove we can make a movie with less. So we didn’t have any means.”
With no art department for a medieval period film, Wenders hired three actors and rented three costumes and used the same hand-cranked Debrie camera from the 1920s that Carl Theodor Dryer used for “The Passion of Joan of Arc.” “This camera I’ve used before makes everything look old, makes everybody believe that we are in the past,” he said. “There are cars and antennas in the background, but that camera fools everybody.”
Wenders worries about the state of the world and lost morality, especially in politics, he said: “I was happy I was asked to do this, the more I got into it.” He found the the title — “A Man of His Word” — in the editing room. “To find somebody who really meant what he had to say, who had no industry or interest behind him except the common good — whatever he said was unbiased, and was clear and simple, and in my book, true. It was an amazing example.”
What struck Wenders the most is the Pontiff’s “gentleness and the way he looked at me when we were doing this, the way he looked at everybody, the openness. He has deep love for people. He is a very powerful man in his presence, his spirit, and his way of being. He can’t help it. You’re in awe of somebody who’s sure of himself and so clean and gentle at the same time.”
Wim Wenders hadn’t entertained the notion of an audience with the Pope when the Vatican wrote him to ask if he’d be interested in helming a documentary on the current incumbent Pope Francis. But the prospect was intriguing, he told Deadline…
Focus Features is deploying a nationwide U.S. distribution strategy for “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” the Wim Wenders-directed documentary that launched in Cannes on Sunday as a special screening. The film’s North American release May 18 has been …
There are very few directors who have made both top-notch narrative films and documentaries, among them Michael Apted, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and a recent addition to the list, Cannes juror Ava DuVernay. But the German director Wim …
There are very few directors who have made both top-notch narrative films and documentaries, among them Michael Apted, Jonathan Demme, Martin Scorsese, Spike Lee and a recent addition to the list, Cannes juror Ava DuVernay. But the German director Wim Wenders, who won the Palme d’Or for the masterful “Paris, Texas” in 1984 and recently was nominated for Oscars for the remarkable documentaries “Pina” and “The Salt of the Earth,” has to be near the top of the list.
And now he’s come to the Cannes Film Festival with “Pope Francis – A Man of His Word,” a modest and prosaically titled film about the Roman Catholic pontiff who has made it his mission to work on behalf of the poorest and most troubled, even if it means veering closer to controversial liberation theology than to the usual priorities of the Church.
The first thing to say about Wenders appearing at Cannes is that it’s probably a good thing that he’s doing so with a documentary. The 72-year-old director’s last few narrative films have been real duds: “Every Thing Will Be Fine,” “The Beautiful Days of Aranjuez” and “Submergence” were clunky and awkward.
Meanwhile, his two prior documentaries were deserving Oscar nominees. 2011’s “Pina” was a bold and magical performance film about the pioneering choreographer Pina Bausch, with a brilliant use of 3D to create the spaces in which Bausch’s art could take place, while 2014’s “The Salt of the Earth” was a lyrical and incisive look at Brazilian photographer Sebastiao Salgado, the father of Wenders’ co-director, Juliano Ribeiro Salgado.
“Pope Francis,” in many ways, is far closer to “Pina,” which is focused on performances of Bausch’s work, than to “The Salt of the Earth.” In fact, it’s also of a piece with other Wenders films like “Buena Vista Social Club,” because it is, in essence, a performance film.
That’s not to say that the pontiff sings or dances in the movie; his performance lies in conversation. The heart of the movie is Pope Francis sitting in a chair — sometimes a red brocade chair in a room with burnt orange walls, sometimes a pale chair in a garden surrounded by trees, with a church steeple in the distance — and delivering a message.
One of his first comments is, “The world today is mostly deaf,” and from there he spends the early stretches of the film upbraiding the Church for its emphasis on wealth. “I wanted a poor Church for the poor,” he says, and a moment later, “We either serve God or we serve money … As long as the Church is placing its hope on wealth, Jesus is not there.”
From there, we get a veritable Pope Francis’ Greatest Hits: washing the feet of poor South Americans (he himself is Argentinian), saying that it’s the duty of church officials to report pedophilia to the authorities, visiting refugees in Greece, decrying Donald Trump’s border wall and commenting, “If a person is gay and is searching for the Lord, who am I to judge him?”
The whole point of the film, driven home by black-and-white reenactments, is that the pope is a revolutionary in the mold of his namesake, Saint Francis of Assisi, who sought to moderate a truce between Christians and Muslims during the Crusades. But in tone and approach, this is an understated, affectionate film, more reverential than revolutionary; it’s less a portrait of the pope than a recital by him, with the boldness of his ideas undercut by the modesty of their telling.
In one way, that’s a strength of “Pope Francis” because it simply presents the man as he is, with a simplicity befitting the pope’s own demeanor. It’s not going to make converts out of anybody — I was raised Catholic, I’m definitely not one anymore and all the movie did was convince me that the pope is a good man.
Then again, Pope Francis is a healer, not a proselytizer. And Wenders knows enough to stand back and let him say his piece and make his peace.
Even a series of ill-advised recreations of the life of St. Francis can’t derail this mostly satisfying look inside the life and philosophy of the first pope to take his name.
Prolific filmmaker Wim Wenders goes economical with his latest documentary about an essential cultural figure — the “Pina” and “Tokyo-Ga” helmer’s cinematic obsessions are always wide-ranging, and this one is no exception — for an intimate look at the life and philosophy of Pope Francis. Wenders is less concerned with the path that brought the Argentinian to his place as the living leader of the Catholic faith, instead opting to explore a very here-and-now approach to the intricacies of the pope’s own faith, and how he hopes to use it to positively impact the world around him. The film shows a refreshing interest in his current existence, rather than becoming a by-the-book retread of his pre-pope life.
In fact, “Pope Francis — A Man of His Word” offers up just a single slice of archival video that shows him preaching to a large, public crowd about the need for brotherhood in the world. It’s more than enough to drive home the point that Pope Francis has always been dedicated to such matters. He is, as promised, a man of his word.
It’s that word that forms the center of the film, and the pope often gets to speak it, thanks to a series of intimate interviews with the man himself. The gregarious spiritual leader is open and disarmingly honest, and Wenders shoots their chats with such up-close immediacy that you feel as if you’re sitting next to Pope Francis; as if his thoughts, often verging on off-the-cuff sermons, are meant just for you. But he’s also a man fully in charge of his message, and when he offers an admonishment to any churches that seek to attain wealth — “Jesus is not there,” he says of such institutions, and he’s not afraid to count some Catholic churches under that umbrella — he pauses to repeat the statement. There is no ambiguity to his message.
Pope Francis’ arguments run the gamut from the expected (he’s especially interested in the concept of true brotherhood) to the scandalous (he’s a strong proponent of the environment, believes that the power of science can go hand and hand with religion, and even talks about welcoming homosexuality into the church). Less a look inside his personal history than a stirring journey through the ideas that shape his approach to leadership and the world today, “Pope Francis — Man of His Word” emerges as a compelling chronicle of a global leader with huge reach (that happens to be rooted in faith).
Despite his singular subject, Wenders makes a number of strange choices when it comes to delivering segments of the film not dedicated to those intimate interviews. For one, there’s off-kilter narration by Wenders himself, and his pleasant German accent and stilted delivery mostly get in the way. The film opens with Wenders ruminating on the passage of time, while a time-lapse video unfolds across the screen, and it’s a strange decision that otherwise adds nothing to the film. In one scene, Pope Francis observes a river, and Wenders’ ask that the audience likewise observe the pope sounds like something pulled out of a truly weird nature documentary by Werner Herzog.
Wenders’ choice to pepper the film with stories about Pope Francis’ namesake, the venerated Saint Francis of Assisi, already feels off-kilter for such a present-focused feature, and get weirder still when they turn into flickering, black and white recreations of the saint’s journey to God. They’re done with all the refinement (and half the humor) of a Monty Python sketch, and each time they appear, they stop the film cold.
When Wenders returns to Pope Francis, “A Man of His Word” snaps back into place. His visits around the world, from prisons to hospitals, war-torn countries to refugee camps, the floor of the Senate to a typhoon-ravaged Philippines, are especially compelling, and provide a chance to see the pope’s word in action. The pure joy he inspires in people provides enough emotion to fill an entire film, and even audiences that are in no way religious will likely be quite moved by the raw power of devotion — both from his followers and the pope himself.
As it chugs towards its conclusion, the film suffers from a common case of too many endings, including a fitting one that features Pope Francis offering up a final sermon about his own philosophy with advice that’s characteristically timely and universal. Then it slogs through a handful of truncated scenes, a few more interviews, yet another time-lapse, more voiceover narration, and finally settles down at a seemingly random point. Still, one of Pope Francis’ closing messages rings out, undiluted by a muddled conclusion: “We have so much to do, and we must do it together.”
“Pope Francis — A Man of His Word” premiered at the 2018 Cannes Film Festival. Focus Features will release it in theaters on May 18.
As both a fiction filmmaker and a documentarian, Wim Wenders has always been more concerned with the journeys of individuals than the systems and institutions in which those journeys are made. In his Palme d’Or winner “Paris, Texas,” Wenders tackled th…