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. (We get little more on that subject than stern news-conference rhetoric about “zero tolerance.”)
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.” In this stirring portrait, it’s possible to see evangelism not in hectoring words or holier-than-thou bromides, but in loving action. Who wouldn’t say amen to that?
PG. At area theaters. In English, Italian and Spanish with subtitles. Contains mature thematic material, including images of suffering. 96 minutes.