It’s said that we get the leaders we deserve, and a pessimist surveying the current landscape would doubtless agree. Very occasionally, though, we get a spiritual leader we don’t deserve. Wim Wenders’s laudatory documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” is an essay in radical humility capable of moving a viewer regardless of his or her religious persuasions, or lack thereof. It’s a reminder of what is good in this world and of a goodness to which we should all aspire. (Indeed, to which we may need to aspire if we’re to survive as a species.)
That’s not to say the film doesn’t have its hiccups. It gives us too little on the pope’s early life, for one thing, and dodges his more orthodox views on sexuality and morality. While opening and closing “A Man of His Word” with picturesque shots of the Umbrian countryside surrounding Assisi, home of the current pope’s namesake St. Francis of Assisi, Wenders’s decision to include a handful of dramatized passages from the life of St. Francis doesn’t work as well. Filmed in black and white using hand-cranked silent-era cameras and featuring actors, these papal indulgences start as a novelty and quickly come to seem precious and derivative. (You’re better off with Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 “The Flowers of St. Francis.”)
Besides, the current Francis seems revolutionary enough for an era of ecological crisis, humanitarian disaster, and churchly scandal, especially since Wenders has the pope on camera directly sharing his thoughts with the audience. (The director has declared his indebtedness to the filmmaking style of Errol Morris, and the effect is one of unquestionable presence.)
With his rededication of the Catholic Church as a ministry for the poor and powerless, the prelate born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires has welcomed in a vast flock of the faithful and sympathetic non-Catholics, and his pronouncements are startlingly blunt for an era of unrivaled mendacity. “We must all consider if we can’t all become a little poorer,” he tells us — the nerve of the man! “We either serve God or we serve money,” he says, and he makes sure we understand he’s talking about his fellow priests as well. “As long as the church is placing its hope on wealth, Jesus is not there,” Francis tells the director, and he says it twice for emphasis.
Lip service? Perhaps. But to see the stone-faced Vatican bishops in close-up as the pope reads off a list of “diseases” plaguing the Catholic Church is to know that even lip service can sting. As the first pope from the Americas, not to mention the first Jesuit pope, Francis is an outsider, and he understands his job is to represent all outsiders and to make the insiders uncomfortable.
Consequently, the most moving sequences in “A Man of His Word” involve the pontiff’s global travels to the impoverished and suffering: refugees in Greek camps, children in a Central African Republic hospital, victims of a Philippine typhoon, inmates at a Philadelphia correctional facility. Watching the pope wash and kiss the feet of a prisoner may be the most moving symbolic act of common humanity you will see all year.
But, again, it’s a symbol. The pope is an example, not an army — not even an army of peace — and when he addresses the US Congress in 2015, asking the joint body of policy makers, “Why are deadly weapons being sold to those who are planning to inflict untold suffering?” you can feel the room nod, applaud, and look away. Wenders gives us montages of Francis meeting with world leaders (notable exceptions being Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin), including Arab and Jewish representatives. “We are children of Abraham,” he tells the latter. “We are brothers, like it or not.” The recent news out of Gaza reminds us that many people don’t like it.
And yet the power of a symbol is hard to calculate. It does its work by stealth and over time, even if time sometimes seems to be running out, as Francis himself exhorts us in “Laudato Si,” his encyclical on man’s destruction of the environment (illustrated by Wenders with stark images of ruined landscapes). The pope makes sure we connect the dots all the way to the top. “This economy kills,” he tells us. “This economy excludes. This economy destroys Mother Earth.”
Pope Francis is 81 and has recently made vague noises about “taking my leave.” His time with us may not be long. But “A Man of His Word” honors and celebrates the shock of a man of God who would rather make this life better than hand out empty promises about the next.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word
Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Wenders and David Rosier. Starring Pope Francis. At Boston Common, Fenway, Kendall Square, suburbs. 96 minutes. Unrated (as PG: glimpses of global suffering and strife).Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @tyburr.