Wim Wenders Faith and yearning

Submergence (2017)
© Backlot Films

Acclaimed German filmmaker Wim Wenders two most recent efforts — 2017 drama ‘Submergence’ and 2018 documentary ‘Pope Francis: A Man of His Word’ don’t represents the director’s best work, and ostensibly, the pair couldn’t seem more dissimilar.

Surveying Berlin circa 1987 from its loftiest reaches, Damiel (Bruno Ganz) is faced with a dilemma. Does this angel who walks among humans follow his beliefs and uphold his duties, or does he succumb to his desire for trapeze artist Marion (Solveig Dommartin)? As Wim Wenders’ most famous character in his most famous film, Damiel’s turmoil furnishes the writer/director’s masterpiece Wings of Desire. And while Wenders would specifically return to the same world again just six years later with sequel Faraway, So Close!, one could say that he has never actually left it — or his fascination with faith and yearning.
 
While the German filmmaker’s career has spanned a varied array of titles and topics in the years both before and since Wings of Desire, callings of the soul and the heart have always flowed through his work. They’re evident in the reunions in Paris, Texas and the romantic entanglements of The Million Dollar Hotel. They’re as much a part of Buena Vista Social Club, Pina and The Salt of the Earth as Cuban music, dance choreographer Pina Bausch and the photographic works of Sebastião Salgado, respectively.
 
And, they underscore Wenders two most recent efforts — 2017 drama Submergence and 2018 documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. Neither represents the director’s best work, and ostensibly, the pair couldn’t seem more dissimilar. Still, uniting the former’s tale of separated lovers and the latter’s chronicle of the current papacy is a longing to believe and to reach out, whether to one special person as motivated by affection or to the masses as inspired by theology.

SINKING DEEP

Connecting at a beachside resort in Normandy, Submergence’s bio-mathematician Danielle Flinders (Alicia Vikander) and spy James More (James McAvoy) fall into the first category. They’re both searching for something more — she’s preparing for a scientific research trip to the bottom of the sea, and he’s using well-digging as a cover to hunt a terrorist in Somalia — but their longing solidifies around each other. If their intellectual and professional pursuits flow like water, their bond with each other firms like ice.
 
Alas, as the pair meet, go their separate ways and yearn to fall back into each other’s arms — and to survive their individual quests, first — this adaptation of J. M. Ledgard’s novel of the same name takes a much too literal approach to its story and themes. From Submergence’s opening images of the ocean’s depths, no opportunity to equate the film’s emotional centre with water is spared. When the aquatic substance isn’t seeping through the feature’s frames, it’s making its absence felt. Characters sail upon it, plunge into it, wade through it, swim in it, sink into its furthest reaches, attempt to pump it to those in need and simply thirst for it.
 
Such pervasive moisture is designed to mirror the feelings surging through the movie’s two protagonists, of course. It’s an attempt to link their personal plights not only to larger concerns — their romance to their respective lines of work, including the origins of life and global politics — but to existential musings as well. The desire to connect might be as innate and ever-present as the desire to explore and improve, and the comfort that comes from another might be the splash of solace needed to temporarily wash away the world’s ills, but, delicate though the film often proves, Submergence often lacks the care to know when to trickle its sentiment. Wenders’ latest fictional effort is handsomely shot and involvingly performed, yet it sometimes functions like its striking but overused graphic matches, diving too deep into obviousness.

RISING ABOVE

Unsurprisingly, subtlety also floats into the background with Wenders’ latest work: the Vatican-instigated and -approved Pope Francis: A Man of His Word. The director is afforded remarkable access to his subject, who speaks directly to the camera for much of the documentary’s duration. Wenders was also reportedly given free reign to craft the film that he wanted to without church intervention. And yet, exploring the mission of the Catholic Church’s current head — and his quest to use his faith not to decree, but to assist — always feels like the authorised effort that it is.
 
Ascending to the papacy in 2013, Pope Francis has carved out a space separate to his predecessors; not because he’s the first pontiff from the Americas and the first Jesuit, or for shunning the more elaborate trappings of his position, but for his more modest, empathetic approach. With the octogenarian born Jorge Mario Bergoglio the first in his role to take his title from St. Francis of Assisi, the film makes much of his fondness for his namesake’s leanings. And, in both footage of him interacting with the faithful around the world, speaking about helping those truly in need, and in his brief statements about more progressive topics, it remains sympathetic to the idea of a man rising above the ingrained complexity of his celebrated post.
 
Still, Pope Francis: A Man of His Word only ever remains skin deep; the filmic equivalent of reading from the prayer book and listening to the sermon, rather than interrogating and internalising the words contained within. Francis’ peace-espousing, tolerance-promoting words resound with compassion and commitment, as well as quiet charisma, but presenting them isn’t the same as probing them. The documentary also hones its focus on Pope Francis, the figure, over Pope Francis, the man, resulting in a film about the calling to use faith for kindness, but lacking one of faith’s fundamental aspects: its personal nature. With archival interludes and new segments fashioned to look like footage of old, and with his keen eye and sense of pace, it still applies Wenders’ sense of aesthetics to his love for those who follow their hearts and souls; however, as intriguing as it remains, the film can’t plunge below its reverential surface.