Up close with Pope Francis in Wim Wenders′ film at Cannes | Film | DW | 14.05.2018
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Up close with Pope Francis in Wim Wenders' film at Cannes

The famous German director didn't want to make a film about Pope Francis — he wanted to make a film with him. Wenders' documentary "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" is an intimate portrayal of a "unique human."

No film has ever captured a Pope so intimately — until now. German film director Wim Wenders' documentary "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" is a journey to and with the current the head of the Catholic Church, an encounter and meditation with this unusual man in the filmmaker's best style.

The 96-minute film, which the director has been laboring away on since 2013, was screened Sunday evening at the Cannes Film Festival as an out-of-competition offering. It opens in the US on May 15 and in Germany on June 14.

Read more: Pope Francis: The Catholic Church's Superman?

The film begins with a long shot of Assisi. As the birthplace of Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226), the central Italian city has been considered a Catholic counterweight to Rome. The preacher, born to a rich family, radically devoted himself to the poor, baring himself entirely before his God, discovering the world and its Creation anew.

Read more: 'Wings of Desire': Wim Wenders' restored masterpiece revives divided Berlin

Wenders' sonorous voice tells Assisi's story from off-screen, recalling passages from "Wings of Desire" (1987), a fantasy romance on estranged love, and from "The Salt of the Earth" (2014), a biographical documentary focused on nature photography. All are a meditation on time.

The camera captures Jorge Mario Bergoglio as he exits the papal conclave and steps onto the balcony of St. Peter's Basilica, his first moments as the newly elected Pope Francis. And the camera travels with him around the world: to a dangerous, destitute quarter in Rio de Janeiro; to a rundown Roma settlement on the outskirts of Rome; to the victims of a hurricane in the Philippines. The images include brilliant, previously unpublished shots from the Vatican's collection.

The pope blesses a man in a scene from Wim Wenders' new documentary (W. Wenders)

The pope blesses a man in a scene from Wim Wenders' new documentary

On the heels of the Pope

The so-called famous faces of the world — US Presidents Donald Trump and Barack Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, German Chancellor Angela Merkel — appear on the sidelines for mere seconds. Yes, Pope Francis meets with them. But he encounters others, for example, in Rio.

There, crowds line the city's sidewalks and cheer as the popemobile rolls through the streets. Pope Francis waves here, blesses there. It's a drive with gravitational force, drawn-out yet swift, and accompanied by the music of iconic Argentine folk singer Mercedes Sosa.

But suddenly Francis stops his car. He has spotted an old nun amidst the crowd — who he had met in 1969! The two old individuals fall into a long embrace. Sister Maria Eufemia later tells the camera with sparkling eyes: "God sent us the pope that the world needs right now."

Sharing a hug with an imprisoned convict; laying his hands on the sick: Such special moments are particular to Pope Francis.

A child at death's doorstep

At some point, Francis tells the camera about a terminally-ill 8-year-old cancer patient who wished to speak just once with the pope. When Francis learned of the child's wish, he called him on the phone, but the boy was asleep, so the pope left a message on the answering machine. A second phone attempt to reach the boy also failed. Finally, Francis managed to reach the boy's mother. The child, greatly weakened, could only listen to the pope and then thank him. The boy died hours later, Francis says in the documentary, quoting the child's thanks: "Grazie, Grazie."

Wenders uses a technical trick to achieve tightness and intimacy in the film's long spoken passages, which were taken from four interviews with the pope. The director himself did not want to appear in the film, so the pope speaks directly to a camera with a teleprompter that shows Wenders' face instead of text. Pope Francis listens to and answers Wenders' questions, speaking to the filmmaker's face into the camera. The viewer is drawn in unusually close, to say the least.

A film with the pope, not about him

The 72-year-old Wenders said in an interview that he didn't want to make "a biographical film about Francis" but "rather a film with him."

It's the ideas of this pope that the filmmaker finds compelling, such as his openness towards all people and the social problems of the world. For Wenders, Francis' position on the challenges and threat of climate change make the pontiff "very unique."

Zero tolerance for pedophilia in the Church

One detail exemplifies how much tension exists between Pope Francis and the system of the Catholic Church. Interviews in the film from 2012 and 2013 show the pope demanding "zero tolerance" when it comes to child abuse by Catholic officials. "The Church must punish the guilty," he says, as well as support investigations and work with state justice systems.

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Francis says this with great seriousness and decisiveness. And now, in these first months of 2018, no other issues have preoccupied him as much as the cases of pedophilia by priests in Chile. He brushed aside the incidents as unproven when he visited the country in January — a catastrophic first reaction.

Since then, the pope has apologized publicly on multiple occasions. He met with victims and called all of Chile's bishops to Rome: "Zero tolerance," he says in the film. "There is no other way out. Zero tolerance."

Read more: Canadian MPs vote for papal apology over abuse of aboriginal children in schools

The vignette shows the divide between the system and Pope Francis, who had already chosen to go down that path as he was elected. You hear the warm, calm voice of Wim Wenders expressing his amazement that no one before the current pope ever took the papal name of Francis, a "revolutionary of not just all of Christianity but all of humanity."

Wenders, a Catholic, has dared to make an almost tender film about — or also with — this Francis who is for him a "very unique" figure. It is not a film about the Church, and yet it shows that this nearly 2,000-year-old institution, this community of believers that is sometimes a violent global power system and sometimes a global movement of change will never be the same — can never be the same after this one man. 

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