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Pope Francis Documentary Filmmaker Reveals A Candid Pontiff


German director Wim Wenders is perhaps best known for his films "Paris, Texas" and "Wings Of Desire" and documentaries like The Academy Award-nominated "Buena Vista Social Club." So his latest subject may come as something of a surprise. His newest film is called "Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word." It follows the pontiff over the course of two years in his travels around the world, addressing crowds and embracing adherents from a Philadelphia prison to the Wailing Wall in Jerusalem, from the floor of the U.S. Congress to the halls of a hospital in the Central African Republic. And through a series of intimate interviews, the film offers insight into the pope's beliefs and aspirations.


WIM WENDERS: (As Narrator) Here we are, all of us, with great expectations of the first pope from the Americas, the first from the Southern Hemisphere, the first Jesuit. But most of all, the first pope ever to chose the name Francis. What is it going to take to flow a Franciscan breeze into the world again other than courage and humility?

GONYEA: The film premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, and it's out in theaters this week. To hear more about it, we are joined by Wim Wenders from our studios in New York.

Mr. Wenders, thank you for being here.

WENDERS: Thank you for having me.

GONYEA: So I understand that this all started when the Vatican reached out to you, out of the blue, asking if you'd like to make a film about the pope.

WENDERS: Yep. This letter arrived at my office, and my secretary got very excited. You got mail from the Vatican. And it was indeed a letter, saying might you be interested in talking with us about a possible film involving Pope Francis?

GONYEA: OK, so how does one respond to that kind of question?

WENDERS: One takes a deep breath.

GONYEA: Indeed.

WENDERS: And then you think, well, yes, I would be interested because I've been impressed with this pope ever since I first saw him, ever since I knew he was calling himself Francis. That was a tall order. And I went and spoke to them and realized they didn't really want to produce any film. They didn't - strictly wanted to initiate it and make it clear the pope was available for something like that. And would you be interested? We'd keep out of it. We'll let you run with it. And we'll give you access to the Holy Father and even to the archives.

GONYEA: You open the film with the story of Saint Francis of Assisi. And it's an important through line in this documentary. For those who aren't familiar with the saintly pantheon, I'd like you to remind us first who Saint Francis was and what it meant to you that Jorge Mario Bergoglio chose to take that name, Francis, when he assumed the papacy.

WENDERS: The legacy of Saint Francis is enormous. And he was actually, when I was a boy, the only saint I knew by name. All the others remained anonymous, but Saint Francis was the guy who talked to the birds and who became poor, and he called all trees and animals and all creatures of nature our brothers and sisters. So I knew him, and I knew he was a revolutionary, a visionary. And all his concerns were even more obvious today. So when this new pope, for the first time, took on the name of Francis, I thought that was courageous to say the least.

GONYEA: The film is structured around a series of interviews you conducted with Pope Francis in and around the Vatican. How did you think about what you wanted to him to discuss?

WENDERS: I realized I was in a very privileged position in having the possibility to sit down and talk to the pope face-to-face. And I didn't want that really for myself. I figured that was exactly what I wanted to pass on to my audience, so I figured out a way to shoot it so the pope is really now addressing each and everybody in the audience. And then I thought of every possible question anybody on this planet could have. Overall, he answered 55 questions, and I don't appear as the interviewer. I showed it in a way that the pope really talks about all his concerns immediately and directly to anybody in the audience.

GONYEA: The film touches on a few of the major controversies confronting the church. There's a scene on the pope's plane, where he's taking questions from the press. One reporter asked that question famous-now about how to handle the, quote, "gay lobby." It elicits that - who am I to judge? - response. He also gives a rather charged answer on that plane to a question about sexual abuse in the church. The abuse of children clearly angers him. What do you want us to see in moments like this?

WENDERS: I want you to see that the pope is concerned with these matters. I want you to see that he gets very angry also into my camera with the question of pedophilia. He got very, very upset. And you see that it's tormenting him and that he would like to do so much more right away and that his zero-tolerance policy is really something he wants to install. And you realize he's really fighting not just for something he's considering that's right, but he's also fighting in order to make this whole institution go his way.

GONYEA: I'm wondering, how do you reconcile the angry reaction you witnessed from him regarding pedophilia in the church and the criticism that he hasn't taken enough of an initiative to confront it?

WENDERS: You see, I'm not an investigative reporter, and I didn't do the film as such. And I don't know all that background that is always playing into this. I don't know what resistance he's facing. I don't know really what policy is behind the scenes. I know that he's full of the best intentions, and I take that completely for granted. And I know how humble and honest and courageous a man he is, so that's the only thing that my film wants to convey - is who he is and what he's fighting for.

GONYEA: One of the most moving things that the pope says in one of your interviews - it comes late in the film. He's talking about the importance of art as a means of enrichment and uplift, and he calls artists apostles of beauty.

WENDERS: I got a little scared when all of a sudden he switched subject and started to talk about that - artists are apostles of beauty. Where is he going, I asked myself. And then he said, yeah, but we all have that capacity. Each of us can bring something beautiful into other people's lives. And if you ask me what that could be, well, that - for instance, it's a smile. A smile is something - beautiful thing we can give each other, and it doesn't cost anything. And sense of humor. And then he makes a very funny joke. I had to really make sure that I wasn't bursting out laughing because I didn't want to appear as a laughing voice on this joke.

And in the course of what he developed there starting from the artist being an apostle of beauty, I realized this was his way to end the movie because I had told him before our last interview, you know, I don't know how to put that as a question, but as you talk so immediately to everybody in this - you really look everybody in the eye in this film - I'd love to find a way that you could say goodbye. And then I realized he was on it, and he was finding his way to that goodbye with a smile and a joke.

GONYEA: Wim Wenders is the filmmaker behind "Paris, Texas," "Wings Of Desire," "The Buena Vista Social Club," among many, many others. His new documentary, "Pope Francis: A Man Of His Word," is in theaters now. Wim Wenders, thank you for speaking with us.

WENDERS: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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