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Pope Francis -- A Man of His Word

The Myrna Loy

(PG)

Grade: B+

I hope moviegoers are not put off by the slightly pious title of the film, “Pope Francis – a Man of His Word.”

This thoughtful documentary is not religious propaganda nor, in this case, is it Pope-aganda.

Wim Wenders, a German filmmaker whose best films include “Paris, Texas” and “Wings of Desire,” set out to profile the man who would be pope – to work his way behind the robes to let us get a sense of the person who became the leader of the Catholic Church, and its one billion believers.

That’s no easy task. The Vatican carefully restricts access to the Pope, for good reasons such as security and a busy schedule, as well as for dubious reasons, such as to prevent negative press.

But Wenders, who was raised Catholic, but now calls himself simply Christian, persevered. Although his film lacks the investigative edge of great documentaries, “Pope Francis” does succeed in introducing us to Jorge Mario Bergoglio. Jorge, a boy born in Buenos Aires would, some 70 years later, come back to his homeland as their Pope Francis.

And what a glorious return home it was! With Vatican security running frantically by his side, the Pope waved to the crowds and then even walked into them to greet the people.

He’s hugged by some, kissed on the cheek by others. One elderly woman kisses his hand and holds it to her face for a long while. He never pulls away. With tears flowing, she finally walks slowly and gratefully away; he never rushes someone who greets him – he never looks beyond the one whose hand he holds.

The scenes of the Pope embracing the poor are deeply moving. Catholics and non-Catholics alike vividly remember the attempted assassination of Pope John Paul II on Dec. 31, 1981. But Pope Francis regards his life as worth risking in order to be accessible to all Catholics, especially the poor.

A child asks him about why he refuses many of the luxuries of the Vatican Palace in order to live at the more modest Saint Martha’s House. His answer to such questions is always some variation of the same caution: Wealth is at the root of many sins and much suffering.

Wenders shows Pope Francis visiting prisons. We see him try to give prisoners hope, to talk of forgiveness. Tears roll down their faces.

He calls himself an apostle of the ear. He tries to talk a little, but to listen a lot.

He says when parents talk of the struggles of raising kids, he always asks them: “Are you willing to ‘lose time’ by playing with them?”

The Pope is clearly not affecting humility, which people of the cloth sometimes do. I’ll bet a Helena parking token, he is a deeply humble, approachable person. I’d be happy to tip a beer with him.

Wenders’ documentary is less compelling when we watch him give homilies to the masses or to lecture the United Nations. And there’s an extended section when the Pope preaches about saving the environment that, while passionate, begins to feel more political than personal.

The personal moments are the memorable ones.

Wenders shies away from addressing the controversial issues. The abuse scandal is touched upon, and the Pope condemns it, but we don’t get much probing about whether the Pope’s done enough, quickly enough.

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The Pope praises women, but the film sidesteps issues of female priests and married priests, a telling omission in this gender-conscious millennium of declining membership in many American Catholic churches.

Despite these moments of “soft reporting,” the documentary is still often a stirring portrait of a man who appears to walk the walk, as well as he talks the talk.

I’m not Catholic, although I commend the Church’s pursuit of social justice and care for the poor. I confess I’m not comfortable with institutional churches and religious hierarchy, which led to me become a quiet Quaker. So I come to films about religion with an open mind, but also a healthy skepticism.

But I left this film quite glad I had been able to meet Pope Francis up close and personal.

Pope Francis is one of those religious leaders who is admired well beyond his congregation, even by people of other faiths or no faith. Now and again in my life, I’ve been drawn to people of faith as exemplary human beings: Mother Teresa, Billy Graham, Bishop Tutu, the Dalai Lama, Gandhi, Thich Nhat Hanh and Martin Luther King come to mind. I subscribe to the ecumenical view that all faiths draw water from the same well, and waste far too much time and energy arguing about who owns the water – and what to call it.

Pope Francis is rising toward that level, too. He seems less comfortable addressing masses than he does when he simply walks among the people – particularly those in his South American homeland.

The mark of a great person of faith is whether their influence reaches beyond their choirs that eagerly sing Hallelujah to their every homily.

Pope Francis is one whose impact resonates well beyond the Vatican, especially in places where the poor live and work. Whether he will usher in substantive change in his church or settle for optics will be answered over time.

His words -- “Who am I to judge?” -- are often encouraging, so I am hopeful.

Wenders’ film powerfully captures the connection between this Pope and the poor – and the best scenes hit me as hard as a dramatic moment in an Oscar drama.

Pope Francis seems a good and humble man of God, a bit surprised to have been handed such power and prominence, but eager to use that opportunity to do some good in the world.

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