Pope Francis provoked criticism with his recents remarks about homosexuality, in which he told the author of a new book that men with “deep-seated” gay tendencies shouldn’t be admitted to seminaries. And he has also faced an insurrection from within the Vatican itself, over doctrinal issues and his handling of a sex abuse scandal involving a cardinal.
But the pontiff has found an ardent admirer in Academy Award-nominated director Wim Wenders, who returns to Oscar contention this year with his documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The film, which made more than $2 million at the domestic box office, came about after Monsignor Dario Viganò, then-director of the Vatican’s TV Center, reached out to Wenders with an offer of exclusive access to the pope.
“It turned out that Dario Viganò was a real cinephile,” Wenders tells Deadline by email. “He knew that cinema was a means of communication that no Pope had ever ventured into. He figured that a documentary film could do justice to the radical approach of Pope Francis’ papacy.”
Wenders emphasizes the Vatican had no editorial control over the film.
“[Viganò] left me with nothing less, or more, than, ‘If you want to do this, we will enable you to do this, but you’re going to have to write and conceive it yourself,’” Wenders recalls, “‘and it’s going to have to be financed and produced independently. We’re going to keep out of it…It’s your movie.’”
In one respect, the Vatican offer is surprising because the filmmaker is no longer a member of the Roman Catholic Church.
“I was raised as a Catholic,” he told TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz at an IDA Conversation event last spring. “I’m a believer, but I’m Protestant now.” He added that he was up front with the pope about his change of faith. “That didn’t bother him in any way.”
In another respect, Wenders was the perfect person to approach for the film, because spirituality underpins all of his films, including 1987’s Wings of Desire, about angels inhabiting Berlin. More than that, he understood the significance of Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio taking on the name of Francis when he was elected pope in 2013, in honor of St. Francis of Assisi.
“Saint Francis had been the most radical reformer of the Church. That might be the reason why no pope before had ever dared to take on the challenge and the legacy of the name!” Wenders notes. “Francis of Assisi is a great figure, not only in the history of the church. To me, he’s a hero of humanity. He stands for so much that is relevant in our present times, more than ever…He stands for a radical solidarity with the underprivileged, the down and outs, the poor, the sick.”
The subtitle of the film—“A Man of His Word”—suggests the director’s feeling that this pope is not a hypocrite, that he lives more in line with the teachings of St. Francis than some of his predecessors, who spent their papacies cosseted in trappings of grandeur.
“[Pope Francis] lives in a simple boarding house, not in a palace, and he drives a simple car, not a limousine,” Wenders observes. “When we shot outside in a little park in the Vatican, Pope Francis arrived in a Fiat Panda, not in a Mercedes.”
There are other commonalities between the ministry of St. Francis and Pope Francis, Wenders believes, including concern for the environment.
“Saint Francis stands for a whole new relationship of man to nature. That was almost the most visionary aspect of his revolution,” the director comments. “He realized that something was getting out of whack between ‘us’ and mother nature, or with ‘Sister Earth’, as he called our planet so tenderly. He truly was the first ecologist, 800 years ago. And what would be more relevant today?! Pope Francis did justice to that legacy by publishing his amazing encyclical Laudato Si’ that really redefined the Church’s position to our present climate catastrophe.”
The pope’s advocacy for nature has led to grumblings among some conservatives Catholics, who would prefer he focus on what they consider a more central mission of the church—to oppose abortion and same-sex marriage.
That difference in outlook may be the real motive behind an extraordinary campaign within Vatican ranks to force Pope Francis to resign, ostensibly over his response to sexual abuse allegations against former Cardinal Theodore McCarrick. Archbishop Carlo Maria Viganò (not to be confused with Monsignor Dario Viganò), accused the pope of covering up the scandal. But Wenders defends the pope’s response to the church’s ongoing sexual abuse crisis.
“Pope Francis’ demands for ‘transparency’ and for ‘zero tolerance!’ [on sexual abuse] do not fly well with a lot of the conservative parts of the church,” he contends. “He is facing enormous resistance there, and they fight him with every gun they have.”
Wenders tells Deadline he has been very pleased with his film’s reception, although he detects some built-in bias against a papal-themed documentary.
“It’s just that many people rather resist from the get-go to the idea of seeing ‘a film with the pope,’ for reasons of religious or political convictions or positions,” he states. “Once they see the film, they forget those.”
The director had Pope Francis speak directly into camera for the film. The impact, Wenders believes, is undeniable.
“Pope Francis has an enormous emotional power of conviction and of reaching people deeply,” he maintains. “With his contagious optimism and positive outlook on life, on spirituality, on our ability to change the world for the better, I haven’t seen anybody who could resist to his appeal. I’ve seen non-believers, even hardcore atheists, deeply moved by his words and his sincerity.”