The Pope and the Saint and the Movies

There’s a new documentary film about Pope Francis, by the respected filmmaker Wim Wenders.  It caught my interest because a review mentioned that it incorporated scenes from the life of St. Francis – not just still images but little dramatizations. The reviewer wasn’t impressed. “These papal indulgences start as a novelty and quickly come to seem precious and derivative,” wrote Ty Burr of the Boston Globe. “You’re better off with Roberto Rossellini’s 1950 ‘The Flowers of St. Francis.’” But Burr spoke well of the film on the whole, so I went to see for myself.

What Wenders has done is to shape the movie loosely around the life of Francis, drawing parallels between the pope and the saint. He has a light touch – he doesn’t claim that the pope imitates the saint in every particular. But since the pope has taken the saint as a model, it makes sense to think about how that works.

There are five themes: the life of Saint Francis; poverty; nature and ecology; interfaith relations; and everything else. On the whole the structure works well, I think. The scenes from the life of the saint are interspersed with footage of the pope’s actions and with excerpts from detailed interviews with him. I found the sequence on poverty – or, to make it less abstract, on people who are poor – particularly effective and affecting.

There were a few things, though, that I found cringe-inducing, questionable, or just wrong. And yes, I’m inclined to agree with the reviewer about the scenes of the saint.

The film first presents St. Francis as a “revolutionary” who offers an answer to the question of how we are to live. Then it focuses on the call to Francis to “restore my house…” and if you know the story, you know that the call continues, “which as you see is falling into ruin.” Wenders doesn’t hit us over the head with that – at least not until later. Still, the voiceover solemnly intones that “Francis took the gospel seriously.” That makes me cringe a bit – does it imply that no one else did, or does? I’d argue that you can take the gospel “seriously” without following the Franciscan way. Consider Benedict or Bonhoeffer or Dostoevsky or  Flannery O’Connor. But all right, the point is made that Pope Francis might bring renewal, if not revolution, to the Roman Catholic Church.

Next, the film dwells on poverty. We’ve heard a summary of the story of Saint Francis by this time, so we understand how he embraced it. As I said, I found this segment very affecting. The pope asks if we can all be “a little bit poorer” – not a revolutionary notion, but a pragmatic one. (Or maybe it is revolutionary after all, for some people.) He recommends “a poor church for the poor.” He suggests that the Curia engage in some self-criticism, and the film emphasizes this point by letting the camera linger on sour-looking, sleepy, elaborately garbed cardinals. The viewer could also read this sequence as an indictment of corruption or of the church as institution. But to return to poverty: there are many scenes of Pope Francis’s travels in the developing world, with huge crowds of ordinary people turning out for him: very powerful images. Even more powerful, when the theme turns to ecology and environment, is the footage of people picking over enormous trash heaps.

Nature and ecology are the next theme. The voiceover says that the world was “stunned” by the encyclical Laudato sí. The pope affirms science and notes some ideas that bear repeating, although they are not news – that the creation story in Genesis isn’t meant to be a scientific account, and that the promise of “dominion” implies knowledge and care, not heedless exploitation.

We then turn to Francis and his love of the natural world. Here, I think, the scenes from the life of St. Francis go off the rails. We see Francis sitting at a little desk in the middle of the wilderness, allegedly composing the “Canticle of the Sun.” He gazes upward as if for inspiration, scribbles down a few words on a piece of paper, and returns to his soulful gazing. This, I’m afraid, is nonsense. The best evidence is that the Canticle was oral before it was written. Besides, it’s a sentimental depiction of the writing process, and there’s that inexplicable outdoor desk. Oh, dear.

There follows part of an interview in which the pope reflects on the ways in which Francis represented Christ – as one who listened, who engaged in dialogue, who had patience with human frailty. The film then touches on various gestures of solidarity and concern from the pope – with gays, children, Holocaust victims, refugees – and returns to the story of the saint in connection with Christian-Muslim relations. It sketches Francis’s journey to visit the Sultan, carefully noting that we don’t know what they said to each other, but emphasizing peace and mutual learning. (There is, unfortunately, a historical error despite the filmmakers’ care: the story of Francis and the Sultan takes place in Egypt, not in the Holy Land.) Then the scene shifts to the pope’s visit to the Holy Land and the Dome of the Rock.

The film goes on to show an interfaith ceremony in Assisi and implies that Saint Francis would have been glad to see it. I’m not so sure. He was, after all, a man of his time and place, and pluralism was not really a live concept then. Francis was a follower of the Christian gospel, not of Enlightenment reason or alternative spiritualities. Still, I think his example of direct, respectful conversation with Muslims – when his countrymen were setting out to kill them – is a very important and powerful one. And today, many religious people acknowledge pluralism in a way that was not available to Francis. Pope Francis works within that reality in a way that I think is appropriate and generous.

Despite my quibbles, I think this is a terrific film. The live footage is stunning. And I think Wenders was right to stay in the realm of generalities and not to push too hard for exact or detailed parallels.

Because – precisely – he shows the ways Pope Francis “takes the gospel seriously” for our time.

And postscript: I think it’s really interesting that the credits list a “bird trainer.”

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