Sponsored content has begun creeping its way into movie theaters, via a new phenomenon in which organizations commission world-class filmmakers to deliver their message, disguised as ordinary documentaries. Werner Herzog, it turned out, couldn’t be entirely tamed: His recent doc Lo And Behold, though ostensibly a means for NetScout to celebrate the wonder of the internet, took enough bizarre detours to register as a genuine Herzog film. His countryman Wim Wenders, however, does little to counteract the Vatican-initiated spin of Pope Francis—A Man Of His Word, which seeks to bolster the public image of a somewhat controversial figure without ever really addressing the controversy. The film’s appeal, predicated on its rare close-up look at a working Bishop Of Rome, will be limited primarily to the faithful; those hoping for a candid portrait of the man beneath the cassock will be sorely disappointed.
Indeed, A Man Of His Word barely acknowledges the existence of Jorge Mario Bergoglio, the Argentine Jesuit who took the name of Francis after Pope Benedict XVI unexpectedly retired in 2013. Apart from one archival glimpse of Bergoglio preaching in Buenos Aires during the late ’90s, Wenders sticks entirely to the papacy itself, juxtaposing Errol Morris-style direct-to-camera interviews with footage of Francis traveling around the world to commune with the downtrodden. In keeping with his namesake, St. Francis Of Assisi, this Pope has devoted himself—much more than recent predecessors—to embracing the lowest of the low; Wenders strengthens the connection via what appear to be clips from an old black-and-white movie about St. Francis, shot in the style of Rossellini or Bresson (though in fact these interludes were wholly created by Wenders, echoing a clever trick he used in 2003’s blues doc The Soul Of A Man).
Even those who are less than thrilled with the Catholic Church as an institution must concede that Pope Francis has pushed it in a slightly more inclusive, even progressive direction. That hasn’t pleased the church’s more conservative elements, who’ve complained, to cite just one example, about his ambiguous views regarding whether divorced and remarried Catholics should be permitted to receive communion. Some even object to Francis forgoing a few of the more gaudy and luxurious papal traditions—most notably, he opted to take up residence in what’s essentially a Vatican City guest room rather than the Apostolic Palace, where Popes have lived since the 17th century. None of this turmoil gets even so much as a passing mention in the film, which focuses entirely on Francis’ earnest, wholly admirable views on love, compassion, tolerance, etc. It’s striking to see the Pope speak into an Interrotron as if he were Robert S. McNamara or Donald Rumsfeld, but he doesn’t say anything you wouldn’t expect him to say. Wenders claims that the Vatican afforded him complete control over the project, as well as final cut; if that’s true, he’s rewarded its trust by strenuously avoiding anything to which it could possibly object.