WASHINGTON (CNS) — German filmmaker Wim Wenders, whose new film biography, “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” debuts on U.S. screens May 18, said he was “so excited” when Pope Francis was announced as the new pope.
What particularly touched Wenders, 72, was “when his name was proclaimed as ‘Francesco.’ That is the only moment in my life when nine years of Latin paid off!”
He added, “I couldn’t believe that this — yet unknown — pope had had the courage to choose that name! Then I saw him and heard his voice, his famous ‘Buona sera’ (Good evening), and I laughed when the whole square laughed when he said his cardinal brothers had finally elected a bishop of Rome, but they had to go to the end of the world to find one. I liked this man from the beginning.”
Wenders replied May 16 to written questions from Catholic News Service.
“I knew from the beginning that his choice of name would have to be a part of that film. I felt I needed to share that with all these people who might not know how daring and significant it was that this pope had adopted this very name,” Wenders said.
Wenders linked the key themes of Pope Francis’ papacy with those of St. Francis of Assisi, the inspiration for the choice: “a solidarity with the poor and the outcast, a deep love and care for Mother Earth, and a renewed effort to establish peace between the religions. St. Francis stood for all of this. So he had to appear (in the film)!” And he does, in the form of a black-and-white “silent” movie shot by Wenders himself on film stock made to look like it came from nearly a century ago.
“Not so much has changed in the 800 years after his (St. Francis’) death, except that all the problems he had seen coming, are so much more serious now,” Wenders said.
He revealed a providential moment had by New Wave-era poet and singer Patti Smith, whose song “These Are the Words” is heard over the closing credits.
Smith “is a truly amazing spiritual person, not just one of the greatest singers and songwriters ever. She admires St. Francis very much, and at one point, she told me she stayed in the same Franciscan monastery where we also ate with the monks every night when we shot the St. Francis episodes,” Wenders said. “And she told these very kind and friendly brothers that she was convinced that the next pope was going to be called Francis. They all laughed wholeheartedly and told her this was, unfortunately, never going to happen. And then it happened!”
He added, “When I first heard Patti’s song and read the lyrics that she had sent along, I admit, I was in tears. This was such an incredible gift to the film. She had found the perfect way to sum it up in her words. It is uplifting without ever being remotely embarrassing, which is close to impossible. But she did it.
“Well, the entire film had been such a gift, every day I worked on it.”
While most movie buffs may be familiar with Wenders’ filmography, they may not realize he has three honorary doctorates from the Sorbonne in Paris, the Catholic University of Louvain in Belgium and the University of Fribourg in Switzerland.
Wenders said he came to know the Franciscan friars who taught in Fribourg and who administer a parish in Aix-en-Provence in France.
“Together with Michelangelo Antonioni we had shot for a week in their church, for a film called ‘Beyond the Clouds,’ and really got the know them better and realize that this fraternity was also a very cinephile community. They loved movies and actually knew some of our films by heart. I’m not exaggerating, they could quote whole passages from my film ‘Wings of Desire.’ for instance.”
He said, “One day, we were sitting together, having dinner with them, when one of the friars asked me: ‘If ever we managed to convince the university where we work, and in the end also the Vatican, to convey an honorary degree to you, would you accept? You must know: This is rather unlikely, but we’d like to try anyway. And just in case we succeed, what would you say?’
“I answered that I would be indeed honored, and then we never spoke about that topic anymore. Until much later, at least a couple of years, I got a very excited call from the friar. ‘Wim, we did it!’ ‘You did what?’ ‘We got the authorization!’ ‘Which authorization?’ ‘For the honorary degree of doctor of theology for you!’ I was perplexed. I had all but forgotten the proposition. I think I sat down and just shook my head.”
He described his religious views this way: “I consider myself an ‘ecumenical Christian’ who grew up a Catholic, who converted to Protestantism, but who now tries to unite both as good as possible in his heart. My favorite philosopher of the 20th century is still the Jewish thinker Martin Buber, and I have been very influenced by the writings of the American mystic and theologian — I know that is a simplification — Thomas Merton, and right now I cherish the writing and teaching of an American Franciscan friar, (Father) Richard Rohr.”
Wenders told CNS he sees “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” as “consistent with my other documentaries. Then again, a film with the pope is unheard of, anyway, and will stick out from any filmography. You see, if you look at ‘Buena Vista Social Club,’ I made this out of love and sheer enthusiasm for the music of these forgotten and almost obsolete musicians in Cuba. I wanted to share this intoxicating music with as many people as possible.”
Like “Buena Vista Social Club,” “I think this film is again driven by the same impulses. I love this man and his mission and I admire his courage,” Wenders said. “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 are instruments for somebody else’s cause; if you want, they put themselves at somebody else’s service.”
He appreciated the distance, though, given him by the Vatican, which offered Wenders the commission to make “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word.”
“I don’t think I could or would have made this film as a Vatican production. It needed to be financed, produced and distributed independently,” he said. “And (Msgr.) Dario Vigano, the (then-)prefect of the (Vatican) Secretariat for Communication, made it clear to me that this was exactly what he had had in mind — that I would have to conceive this film from scratch, and that the Vatican was not going to interfere, neither in the shoot nor in the editing. He wanted me to make the film that I’d want to make. And that’s how I approached it.”
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