'Pope Francis' paints an inspiring, thoroughly engrossing portrait

The Washington Post
May 19. 2018 8:19PM
Pope Francis blesses a man in a detention center in a scene from Wim Wenders' documentary, "Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word. (PTS ART's Factory - Neue Road Movies - Decia Films - Focus Features)

An absorbing, inspiring movie is hitting theaters that introduces viewers to a swashbuckling global superhero who, although familiar to millions of fans, still has layers of humility, courage and humor to reveal.

No, it's not the guy with the Wookie.

"Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" offers audiences a thoroughly engrossing portrait of one of the most beloved and galvanizing figures of the 21st century, the first pontiff from South America, who started out as an Argentine Jesuit priest and now leads the Catholic church with the compassion and quiet activism of his namesake saint.

Following Francis as he travels the globe visiting migrant camps, prisons, hospitals and gatherings of the faithful, German filmmaker Wim Wenders gives viewers a vivid sense of what it's like to be in the presence of a spiritual rock star, a man of enormous reach and power who has nonetheless adopted a life of relative simplicity amid the splendor and riches of the Vatican, whose "Popemobile" is a modest used car and who possesses a healthy and utterly endearing dose of self-deprecating wit.

He is greeted with tears, smiles and even hugs everywhere he goes, happily embracing the faithful with fraternal affection. Meanwhile, in sternly worded speeches at the United Nations or the Roman Curia, he inveighs against an "economy of exclusion and inequality," scolding the rich and powerful for hoarding the globe's resources and issuing an encyclical warning against environmental waste destruction.

It's no surprise that Francis has proven to be controversial with conservatives in the Catholic hierarchy. But "Pope Francis" underlines how his teachings are firmly grounded in the life of St. Francis, whom Wenders portrays in a convincing, pseudo-vintage black-and-white silent film.

As moving as the pope's words are - including the famous airplane interview when he said, "Who am I to judge?" when asked about the status of gay parishioners - Wenders misses an opportunity to ask genuinely probing questions, including the pope's role in Argentina's political history, as well as what is being done regarding the church's sexual abuse scandal.

Still, as uncritical as "Pope Francis" is, it's impossible not to share the filmmaker's unbridled admiration of the man at its center, where he evangelizes most effectively by comforting the sick, laying healing hands on those who suffer and, during the film's most moving sequence, washing and kissing the feet of prisoners he meets in Philadelphia. Rather than showy pietism, the film convincingly suggests, these gestures are steeped in sincerity and humble service. "Never take a proselytizing attitude," Pope Francis warns. "Never."

Want more movie reviews? Read NHWeekend in Thursday's New Hampshire Union Leader.


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