German filmmaker Wim Wenders might never have imagined that he would be invited to make a film about a pope. But in the second year of Pope Francis’ pontificate, Wenders received a letter from the Vatican.
Wenders is a cradle Catholic who came back to Christian belief, though not necessarily Catholic, after years of involvement in socialism and Eastern religions. By the time he received the Vatican’s invitation, he had already seen enough of Pope Francis to convince him that the new pope was going to be a significant pontiff, a reformer like his namesake, St. Francis of Assisi.
Pope Francis: A Man of His Word is the result of Wenders’ collaboration with Pope Francis and the Vatican. It opened May 18 throughout the United States. It is a documentary, but not a biographical one, Wenders explained in an interview last week in New York. Rather, it is a documentary about his thoughts and concerns.
Q: How did this project come about? Why were you asked to do this film, do you think? Why did you accept?
A:The proposition came in a letter from the Vatican. “Would you be interested to talk about a film involving Pope Francis?” I answered: “Yes, I’d like to talk about it, because I have the greatest respect for this man.” I had watched him, from a distance of course, at that moment already for about a year, and loved what he stood for and what he was doing.
But such a film couldn’t possibly be a commission. That was out of the question. And [the Vatican] made it clear right away this was not at all their idea. The idea was that if ever I thought I could dedicate time and life and my capacities to this, then I should run with it and make it an independent production. They would keep out of it, and just wanted to initiate it. …
Msgr. Dario Viganò, the prefect of the Secretariat of Communications at the time, said right away: “I know I can’t talk to you about a film and not guarantee that you’ll have final cut. And you will have final cut. And actually, you’ll have to conceive of the whole thing, because we don’t know what sort of film you can come up with.”
Q: While making the film, did you have a chance to have any discussions with Pope Francis which didn’t make it into the film?
A: Our talks were altogether four times, two hours each. They were very intense. … I wanted him to be as comfortable as possible, so we did it in Spanish, and we talked about so many subjects. And in the end, I wanted the film to be 90 minutes long, realizing nobody can really listen to one person for longer than that. So a lot of the subjects we addressed don’t appear, or only briefly, and that was the most painful thing about the film: that we had so much more.
I had this unbelievable access to the archives that had all this amazing material and all his journeys and all these visits to prisons and hospitals and refugee camps and the [U.S. Congress], the U.N., … his visit in Asia, in South America. I had hundreds and hundreds of hours.
I myself subtitled everything so we could edit it, so I knew his words by heart. And in the end, that’s how editing goes: You just have to peel out the film in itself, something that is in itself logical and makes sense and that you can follow.
But I’m happy with what is in now, and I feel there is an interior logic, and the dramaturgy is given by the pope himself. I didn’t add all that much.
I added all the “background story,” this reenactment of St. Francis. That’s something that was in my initial concept. I wanted to tell a contemporary audience, and not just Catholics, about St. Francis, figuring that wasn’t “public knowledge” anymore. I wanted to make it clear why that was such an exciting thing for me that the pope had taken up this name.
Q: Did he express anything about how some people might not understand what he is trying to do? As you may know, some critics are speaking out about how he may be creating doctrinal confusion, in his effort to address the issue of divorce and remarriage.
A: We realized that he’s getting a lot of flak, that some heavy winds are blowing against his positions. But I also realized he was fearless and driven by an incredible courage and by a really rock solid belief that he was doing the right thing. And that what he was doing is necessary for the Church today.
As our film is not about the Church itself and her conflicts, I left that out because it would have been the subject of a whole different film. Our film was to explore Francis’ papacy, and if anything, this was a biography of his thoughts and his concerns. It’s not in any way a biographical film about him. We don’t get to know much about the person. But we get to know a lot about his positions and where he stands and what a courageous and spiritual and also a kind man he is.
Q: In the film, Francis comes across as sort of an expert on most everything that afflicts the world today — poverty, climate change, inequality. What in your view gives him this moral authority? Why should people listen to him?
A: He is speaking from a moral authority that, amazingly enough, many people accept, also many who are not religious. I’ve seen the film with lots of people, among them some hardcore atheists, and I saw some of them really touched, even crying. I think he has the capacity to reach people of all religions and of all backgrounds with the simplicity but also with the truth of his position.
Editor’s Note: A trailer of the film and Catholic Digest critic Fr. Chip Hines’ review can be found here: