Wim Wenders, the German director of the documentary “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word,” counts among his influences the painter Andrew Wyeth, who was born in nearby Chadds Ford, Pennsylvania. In 1947, when the director was just a toddler, Wyeth created one of the most famous images in America art, which he titled “Christina’s World.” Loved by many (and criticized by some as being too sentimental), the painting depicts a woman from behind lying in a field, propped on her thin arms and looking toward a farmhouse in the distance.
Viewers see an apparently healthy young woman, yet the subject of the painting, Christina Olson, was middle-aged when Wyeth painted her and had a degenerative muscle condition that left her legs paralyzed by the time she was in her early 30s. She refused to use a wheelchair, preferring to crawl, using her arms to drag her lower body.
In a letter to the Museum of Modern Art in New York, where the picture hangs, Wyeth explained, “If in some small way I have been able in paint to make the viewer sense that her world may be limited physically but by no means spiritually, then I have achieved what I set out to do.”
Wenders, the director who recently tried to capture the essence of Pope Francis on film, wrote of “Christina’s World” that the artist “has really ‘seen’ her, ‘recognized’ her, and done all he can to depict her in the glory of her existence.”
One has to only think of the countless photographs of the pope with people suffering all manner of physical or material infirmities to see why the director was drawn to make a documentary about a world leader who sees spiritual potential as more “real” than physical limitations.
Throughout the film, currently playing in area theaters, the pope speaks to groups and directly to the viewer about God’s love and forgiveness; the value and dignity of each individual; human ability; and the need for political, ethnic and religious groups to work together. The camera also captures scenes from hospitals and slums in developing nations, refugees on the open sea, and the devastation of natural disasters. At one point, the pope recalls speaking to an 8-year-old boy only hours before he died of cancer.
Throughout, in both words and images, the film presents the simple message of Christian hope against the backdrop of a harsh and complicated world.
In addition to being a film director, Wenders is a renowned photographer, and he has written admiringly of Peter Lindbergh, a fashion photographer who works with famous models like Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Christy Turlington. “He turns those goddesses into human beings without taking any of their aura away!” Wenders wrote in an essay on Lindbergh.
The secret, Wenders says, is his smile. “Peter’s smile comes from deep within, from a calm well beyond all the agitation that might be associated with ‘photography’ or even more, with ‘fashion.’ You look into his friendly eyes and you might begin to understand how this untroubled and unimpressed gaze manages to penetrate and transform whatever’s in front of it.”
It may seem strange to compare a pope and a fashion photographer in any way, yet it’s worth noting that “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” ends with the pope talking about the importance of a sense of humor and a smile. “A smile is a flower is a smile of the heart,” he says.
And visually the most striking aspect of the film is not the images of the pope greeting crowds, or meeting with world leaders, or speaking to members of the United Nations or Congress. It’s not the pope’s image at all. It’s the countless close-ups of the individuals listening to him. It’s the refugees with uncertain futures, the sick children and their worried parents, the victims of poverty, the convicts and all the others who seem transformed — all finding hope in the pope’s smile, and in his assurance that God has not abandoned them.
Carl Peters is the managing editor of the Catholic Star Herald.