Wim Wenders, 2014 Wikimedia Commons

Q&A: Wim Wender's unexpected film on the Pope

By 
  • May 18, 2018

In a remarkable life that has progressed from studying film to reviewing films to making films, Wim Wenders has documented the lives of forgotten Cuban jazz musicians (in Buena Vista Social Club), explored the value of truth (in Paris, Texas) asked what really makes us human (in Wings of Desire) and shown us the value of making something, even something as impermanent as dance (in Pina).

That this particular European auteur would wind up making a road movie about Pope Francis is man-bites-dog kind of news – wildly unexpected. A week before seeing the movie, The Catholic Register was invited to submit emailed questions to the director. Below are my questions and his replies. 

Question: You’re 72 years old. You’ve only got so many films left in you. It takes years to get one of these things done. Why did you want to take on this project?

Indeed, this was not in my life’s plan. It came out of the blue, and it would stick out of any director’s filmography as a unique project, that’s for sure. The invitation to make this movie came from the director of communications at the Vatican, who studied and taught cinema at university – so from somebody who knows a lot about films. He sent me a letter asking me if I was inclined to consider a film involving Pope Francis. Could we talk about this? This was toward the end of the pope’s first year in office, in late 2013. 

Yes, I was inclined! I had been excited about this papacy ever since we were all introduced to the new pope and for the first time heard the name he had chosen for himself: Francis! Wow! What a promise that was! No pope had ever dared to take up this name… It stood for a radical identification and solidarity with the poor and the outcast, it was synonymous with a deep care for nature and “Mother Earth” and for a renewed effort to instigate peace between the religions. So I had been following Pope Francis’ first year with enthusiasm, realizing he was indeed serious about transposing Saint Francis’ ideas into the 21st Century. 

I therefore did not hesitate to travel to Rome and find out more about this unusual proposition. And what I was told was very enticing. The Vatican did not want to be involved in the production of the film, they just wanted to plant the seed and instigate the project. It had to be financed and produced independently, and I would be entirely free to conceive the film. It was a complete Carte Blanche, with access to the Pope and to the Vatican’s archives. And they confirmed that they would not interfere with the editing. This was amazing, and I was ready to dedicate imagination, energy and lifetime to it, knowing that, as you suggested, at my age one has to think twice which films to take on. This one seemed to really impose itself with urgency and necessity. 

Question: What surprised you during the making of this film?

So many things! First of all Pope Francis’ openness and his courage to address the issues that not only the church is facing, but also humanity as a whole. His extraordinary ability to communicate with people as well as his genuine love and compassion for them. His sense of humor. The sheer emotional power and conviction of his presence. His kindness. His humility. His willingness to give an example and live what he preaches. His deep belief in the equality of all people before God. The clarity and simplicity of his language. 

Question: What makes you the right person to make this film? After all, Pope Francis is the first non-European pope since a few early North Africans in the dying days of the Roman Empire. Many of the praises and the complaints about Pope Francis boil down to the fact he doesn’t have a European mindset. You, however, are most certainly a European. So why you?

You’re right, he’s a first in many ways. Not only the first to choose the name of Francis, but also the first Jesuit, for instance. The first pope from the Southern hemisphere! That’s the opposite of European, somehow. But I’m at a loss about your question “what made me the right man”? (laughs) You’re asking the wrong guy. 

They certainly knew the documentaries I made before. Maybe they liked my approach? How should I describe that… Already when I was a film student and earned my living by writing reviews, I never wrote about a film I didn’t like. I felt this was a waste of time. My films are all driven by the same impulse – to share something that I like with others. Take the music of these forgotten old men in Havana in Buena Vista Social Club, the beautiful art of German choreographer Pina Bausch in Pina or the extraordinary social photography of Sebastiao Salgado in Salt of the Earth. I’m making films with a loving eye, if you want, not as an investigative reporter. My documentary films do not try to establish a critical distance. Other people are good at that, much better than me. On the contrary, my films put somebody else’s art or issues into the focus of their attention. To find a language for that is still a highly personal task, even if I try to disappear myself as much as possible. Because if you enter somebody else’s universe, you can, just as well, be swallowed up. Unless your love finds its very own form. Only a dedicated point of view can produce a film that others can enter. Admiration only will never produce a film that has a backbone.

Question: The title circles around the idea of the “word.” Pope Francis is a man of his word, and he would certainly connect his word with the theological definition of Christ as the word of God from the first chapter of the Gospel of John. That is to say, the word Pope Francis tries to convey and bring to life is the Word spoken by God to bring all creation into being. However, you work in a visual medium and the images we have seen from this film are perfect, astonishing and beautiful. Is there a problem of translation from image to word? How can we rely on pictures, however beautiful, to carry the weight, complexity and meaning of Pope Francis’ words in Laudato Si, or Evangelii Gaudium?

This is a pretty fundamental question about the role of the image, or rather the relation or balance between the language of words and the language of images. You ask that question at a time, when we all witness the primacy of “The Image” and a decline of “The Word” – at least of the word as a carrier of truth. Truth is almost becoming an endangered species in the age of fake news, lies, gossip and corruption. “Do words still count today?” is a question in the film. 

The film itself tries to be an answer. As Pope Francis is a modest man, I did not want it to become a personal biography, but rather wanted to center it around his concerns, his message, his words. This was going to be a film driven by words. A biography of his issues and concerns, if you want, told mainly in his own words.

I really wanted to refrain from any opinion in the process. We are bombarded with opinions all the time, about everything. Opinion is overrated. Who cares what I have to say about Pope Francis? If I like the man, I can express that so much better in the form of this film – in the journey that I invite the spectator to undertake with the pope. Pope Francis speaks about “closeness” in the film, and I understood my job to pass on that closeness to the viewer.

The film allows you to be close to a man who lives what he preaches and who has gained the trust of people across the world, from all religious, cultural and social backgrounds. Pope Francis is calling for a moral revolution, not more and not less, and he is addressing our ability to change the world for the better.

So “The Word” is governing this film, and “The Image” is at its service, so to speak. For once.

Question: If you’ve ever been inside the Vatican museum you will have seen two kinds of viewers. There are people who are there to see and understand the products of their culture. They are there to appreciate art. Others are there seeking and even finding a spiritual experience. Their visit to the museum is devotional. How should people look at this movie?

Of course, this is up to each and everybody, but I hope that people can look at this film with openness, more than anything! Pope Francis has an enormous emotional power and an ability to reach deep into people’s hearts, with his contagious optimism and positive outlook on life. I haven’t seen anybody yet who could resist to his appeal. I’ve seen non-believers, even hardcore atheists and tough guys deeply moved by his words, his kindness and sincerity.

I’d want people to walk away from this movie with a sense of hope and a sense of longing for a different world. 

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