"POPE FRANCIS: A MAN OF HIS WORD" — 3 stars — Pope Francis, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, John Kerry, Angela Merkel; not rated; in general release
"Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" covers an awful lot of territory, both literally and figuratively. Over the course of 98 minutes, Wim Wenders' film follows the pope from Argentina to the Philippines to Italy, speaking to everyone from impoverished locals in Brazil to esteemed representatives of the United Nations. Along the way, we hear his views on a wide array of world issues, ranging from poverty to environmentalism to religious conflict.
But as all-encompassing as Wenders' effort might be, it is held together by a single unifying theme, underscored in the film's title. Pope Francis sees himself as a man of the people — specifically the poor people — and he is determined to never lose sight of that role.
Wenders' film is more of a promotional profile than a pure documentary, a piece of advocacy more than investigation, and this is made clear by the fact "A Man of His Word" only features interviews with the pope himself, who addresses the camera directly and with conviction.
As a profile, it's also exclusively focused on the pope's contemporary efforts. We learn very little about his background aside from the fact that hailing from Buenos Aires, he's the first head of the Catholic Church to come from the Americas.
Rather than offer a traditional backstory on its subject, "A Man of His Word" instead bookends its content with the story of the man who inspired the pope's name: St. Francis of Assisi. Voiceover and black-and-white re-enactment tells the story of the celebrated Catholic saint who resolved to forsake wealth and live among the people, as Jesus Christ did.
In "A Man of His Word," we see the modern Pope Francis — noted as the first pope to take that name — doing his best to imitate his namesake, vehemently condemning consumerism and a "culture of waste" while living in a modest apartment, and even traveling in a tiny car that looks comic next to the vehicles of his surrounding security detail.
The more effective imagery, though, comes from the faces and places we see the pope encounter on his travels, which are often destitute and desperate. These shots are rolled into commentary on issues such as poverty, family and environmental concerns, and images of almost postapocalyptic destitution are projected onto the facade of St. Peter's Basilica in a memorable display.
Because of the film's nature, when Pope Francis comments on issues such as immigration and our relationship to the Earth (which, in his view, should be defined as a caretaker rather than master), we are offered his simple perspective rather than any attempt to consider rebuttals or complexities.
But at the same time, we do see him address more sensitive issues such as why God allows suffering, the role of gays in the church and the church's history with abuse, to which he offers a stern condemnation of priests who have abused minors.
Altogether, it's a lot to take in, and though often the film is a celebration of its subject, it's also easy to get lost in the imagery of the subjects the pope is addressing. "Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" may capture its subject best as Pope Francis shares Sir Thomas More's "Prayer for Good Humor," which asks the Lord for good digestion, but also for something to digest.
"Pope Francis: A Man of His Word" is not rated but would likely draw a PG rating for some disturbing imagery; running time: 96 minutes.