As Ireland prepares for its first Papal visit in close to 40 years, the unimpressed throng – a cranky minority in 1979 – finds itself in a tricky position. Resistance against the office is easy. But the current incumbent is proving a hard man to hate. Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, a onetime liberal who veered towards the conservative fringe in the late 1960s, would have offered a much more satisfying target for protest.
Just look at Wim Wenders's incoming Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The German director's documentary might turn out to be the first commercial release that counts as literal hagiography. That is to say, on the pope's death, the film really could be used to buttress the case for sainthood. The impression stems partly from Wenders's forgiving approach. The National Catholic Reporter – in what was surely intended as a positive review – actually described it as "a cinematic pulpit for Pope Francis to share his deepest spiritual and moral concerns about the human family and the earth." But the pope's arguments really are persuasive. His talk of "a poor church for the poor" gestures towards (at the very least) an admirable aspiration. He cares about ecology. He is seen going warmly among the poor. It's the things he doesn't say that will most irritate the sceptical.
So, how on earth did the director of Paris, Texas and Wings of Desire – a key figure of the German New Wave – find himself a cinematic amanuensis for the Papacy?
He explains: “A close collaborator of Pope Francis, Monsignore Dario Viganò, at the time prefect of the secretariat for communication . . . wrote a letter to me in late 2013, asking if I could imagine making a film about Pope Francis.”
The director has spoken about how, raised a Catholic, now a Protestant, he keeps hold of a Christian faith. He is nonetheless not the most obvious man for the job. His early films had a rough and unmannered quality. In recent years he's focused on documentaries such as Pina, about the choreographer Pina Bausch, and The Salt of the Earth, on photographer Sebastião Salgado.
"I guess filmmakers take it for granted that making a film with a Pope is an impossible thing to ask, so they don't even ask, and that's why Don Dario took that initiative," he says. "And I eventually did ask him the inevitable question: 'Why me?' and his cryptic answer was: 'Because of Wings of Desire.'"
Coming so soon after the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment, the picture feels conspicuously silent on the issue of abortion
We are left to make of that what we will. That 1987 film, set in the last days of the Cold War Berlin, does deal with an angel who descends from heaven. But it's certainly not a conventional religious text. At any rate, 30 years later, Wings of Desire secured Wenders four two-hour sessions with the sitting Pope. The resulting film runs to a tidy 96 minutes. We get some archival footage of the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio in his native Argentina. We get a monochrome study of Saint Francis of Assisi, from whom he took his Papal name. But the focus is mostly on Francis's words.
“There were 55 questions, and not a single one that was rejected,” Wenders explains. “Pope Francis answered each and every one spontaneously and in-depth. There were no restrictions, and I made exactly the film I had in mind. Actually, sometimes I would have wanted somebody to interfere, somebody to help me steer this ship at least, because it dawned on me that I had taken on quite a responsibility with this film.”
Despite the length of the interviews and the apparent lack of restrictions, there remain absences. Coming so soon after the Irish referendum on the Eighth Amendment, the picture feels conspicuously silent on the issue of abortion. There is, indeed, not a single mention of the topic.
“I’m sorry about that lack,” Wenders says. “But in the end that this is strictly due to editing. We just couldn’t fit all issues into the 90 minutes that I figured represented the maximum time you can concentrate on one person and his message.”
Hmm? Some may feel that there is not enough about the issue of sexual abuse. The pope is asked about it and he does note that: “a priest who does this betrays the body of the Lord.” There’s no equivocation. There’s no evasion. But an issue that many will see as the most important now facing the church is passed over with slightly indecent speed.
“When we addressed the subject of child abuse in our interview, he got very angry,” Wenders says. “It was the only moment during our conversation that I saw him deeply enraged. You really felt that he would want to do so much more, that he was frustrated even that he depended on the entire apparatus to move the church into the direction he realised was necessary, and that was: zero tolerance.”
That does seem like a reasonable interpretation. Only the most hostile observer will, after viewing Wenders’s film, conclude that Francis is not striving in the right direction. The question is whether – without dismantling the church altogether – any significant change is possible. So many barriers to progress seem baked into the hierarchical structures.
“I cannot possibly answer that question,” Wenders says. “I just know Pope Francis will not stop moving forward with his ideas of transparency and ‘a poor church for the poor’. And he will face every challenge with the same courage, openness and tenderness.”
Wim Wenders’s confidence in Pope Francis is touching. He is as much a fan as he was of Pina Bausch or Sebastião Salgado. There are many Catholics – quite a few conservatives among them – who would find it hard to summon up this degree of support. Yet Wenders doesn’t even call himself a Roman Catholic. Or does he? I get a sense that the film-maker – raised in Düsseldorf as the son of a surgeon – has been drifting around the faith of his childhood for decades. He did become good pals with Bono, after all.
“I grew up in a Catholic family, and that really formed me and was the basis of my education and of who I became,” he says. “At the age of 16 I even considered becoming a priest. But along came rock ‘n’ roll, pinball machines and jukeboxes. Along came studies in medicine and philosophy – I was briefly an existentialist – and then came cinema. In film school – mind you, that was in 1968 – between the age of 22 and 25, I was an ardent socialist. Later I was interested in eastern religions.”
Non-believers may be drawn by the charisma of a man who genuinely does seem to be altering – if not exactly breaking – the papal mould
He goes on to explain how, after a curly spiritual journey in the 1970s and 1980s, he eventually realised that he had never lost the belief that he “was seen by a loving God”. He did convert to Protestantism, but he admits to being only loosely attached to any sect.
“I’m a Catholic and a Protestant at the same time, and I like them both for their differences,” he says. “Maybe in the end the Catholic in me is still pretty much alive, but then again, I’d like us all to overcome these limitations. We are too close to be that far apart!”
His connection with Pope Francis seems as much personal as it is religious. In A Man of His Word, the Holy Father really does seem to be engaging with the questions being asked. If he's obfuscating then he's doing so with as much forensic skill as any of his famously articulate predecessors within the Society of Jesus. Talking about the film after its recent premiere at Cannes, Wenders has discussed the surprising "nearness" of the pope. That seemed an odd word to use.
“He has an uncanny ability to connect and to communicate,” the director says. “And he manages to totally concentrate on the person right in front of him, to be near to this person with his entire compassion and concentration. And then he’s a man who lives what he preaches. He makes it clear that he’s not just asking us to consider getting a bit poorer. He does show how it can be done, giving an example by refusing to live in the luxurious apartment.”
Wenders makes much of the connection with Saint Francis. The picture is broken up with black and white footage, shot in the style of Danish master Carl Theodor Dreyer, depicting incidents from the life of the saint. For those not steeped in Roman Catholic lore, it remains surprising that – what with all those Sergiuses and Urbans and Bonifaces – no previous incumbent has taken the name. Were they really worried about that vow of poverty?
“Saint Francis was a big hero for me when I was a kid, kind of a mythical figure almost, but obviously a real man, who had really followed in the footsteps of Jesus,” Wenders says. “Taking on the name of Francis, for the first time in the history of the church, was courageous, I felt. It took guts. And that legacy included even more: 800 years ago, Saint Francis did something unbelievable: he travelled to Egypt, in the time of the Crusades, to speak to the highest authority of the Islamic world at the time, to end the bloodshed between Christians and Muslims. So, the name Francis also came with an obligation to instigate peace between the religions.”
It will be interesting to see how much cultural impact Pope Francis: A Man of His Word makes over the coming month. There was a time when busloads of the faithful could turn such a film into a domestic smash. In the United States "faith cinema" is still a very profitable wing of the industry. Arthouse cinemas such as the Irish Film Institute and the Light House have, over the last decade or so, had niche hits with religiously inclined films such as Into Great Silence and Of Gods and Men. So there is still an attraction. Non-believers may be drawn by the charisma of a man who genuinely does seem to be altering – if not exactly breaking – the papal mould.
“To look Pope Francis into the eyes, see and hear this extraordinary man talk to us directly, that is worth my time, I figured, worth the audience’s time,” Wenders says. “There is nobody else saying what Francis is saying at the moment. Nobody says these things as convincingly and as simply.”
FIVE GREAT WIM WENDERS DOCUMENTARIES
Lightning Over Water (1980)
Magnificently odd tribute to Nicholas Ray featuring footage taken during the last days of the great director's life. Watch out for a glimpse of a young Jim Jarmusch.
Another eccentric, vital tribute to a master of cinema. Wenders incorporates a study of Yasujiro Ozu, director of Tokyo Story, into a musing on the nature of wider Japanese culture.
Buena Vista Social Club (1999)
Wenders’s examination of Ry Cooder’s experiences unearthing the music of Cuba was an absolute sensation. The album was played in every coffee shop. It was nominated for the Oscar. Careers were revitalised.
There were a tiny handful of documentaries that made good use of the new 3D technologies that emerged in the first decade of the century. Werner Herzog's Cave of Forgotten Dreams was one. Wenders's film on choreographer Pina Bausch was another.
The Salt of the Earth (2014)
Fascination engagement with the life and work of he Brazilian photographer Sebastião Salgado. The entire world is here: South America, Africa, the Arctic.