Two film biographies are currently showing in neighborhood theaters, and even though they most definitely do not qualify as typical summer fare, they are both worth seeing. In fact, they may end up being among the best films of the year on some lists.
“RBG” chronicles the professional career and life of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The film is produced and directed by two women, Betsy West and Julie Cohen, which is appropriate since Justice Ginsburg was a major advocate for women’s rights and equality in her pre-judicial career. And she was a trailblazer in that work, with no fewer than six cases on gender equality issues (five of which she won) that she argued to the Supreme Court in the 1970s.
What makes the film marketable today is the iconic status that Justice Ginsburg has attained while serving on the Court. She was appointed by Bill Clinton in 1993 and has become an emphatic dissenter on issues of equal rights and voting rights during her quarter-century on the Court. The film shows her to be a hard-working (ridiculously hard-working if the description of her 20-hour work days is accurate) jurist who is not at all shy about stating her perspectives, both in her opinions and in rare public utterances. One such string of comments (to a trio of news outlets), all negative about Donald Trump’s candidacy to be president during the 2016 presidential campaign, got her in a lot of hot water. She apologized for the comments within days of making them when even supporters were saying the comments were out of line for a sitting Court justice.
But the film does not suggest that Justice Ginsburg is overly concerned about being “out of line” with respect to her advocacy for gender equality. It quotes from her dissenting opinions as a justice and from the briefs she submitted to the Court when she argued cases before it. Many of those quotes are read by Justice Ginsburg, who clearly cooperated in the making of the film. She even allowed the film-makers to film her workout regimen. She works out with a personal trainer two mornings a week, and the workouts appear strenuous for any person in her mid-80s, let alone a woman who has survived two separate bouts of cancer (one for colon, treated with radiation therapy, and the other, more recently, for pancreatic, discovered “at an early stage” and treated surgically). She has eschewed suggestions of retirement (liberals pushed for her to retire during the years of the Obama administration when the Democrats controlled the Senate) and now appears committed to serve so long as she is mentally able.
Ginsburg’s friendship with Antonin Scalia received considerable attention while Scalia was alive. They were avid fans of opera, and the film shows them together in one scene where they have taken on actual non-singing roles in a staged opera. Ginsburg’s relationship with her husband, who died in 2010, also receives considerable attention in the film. He was a highly successful tax attorney, and the two were apparently devoted to each other.
What comes through most especially in “RBG” is the passion of this woman for the causes she believes in. The film is a clarion call to activism and commitment, and, while clearly hagiographic, it is also honest about its subject. Ginsburg’s life is inspirational, irrespective of whether you believe in her legal views and her apparent ideological beliefs, and the film succeeds in projecting that sense.
Also arguably hagiographic, but most definitely inspirational, is Wim Wenders’ remarkable study of the current head of the Catholic Church. “Pope Francis – A Man of His Word” begins with a dramatized scene of St. Francis of Assisi receiving a message from God: “Go and restore my church.” Other dramatizations are interspersed in the film showing the saint administering to the poor and meeting with the leaders of the Muslim faith. The point is to juxtapose the first and only pope to take Francis as his name with the saint, and the comparison quickly becomes apparent.
Wenders’ film is remarkable for several reasons, not least of which is the way he projects the interview portions with the pope as if he was speaking directly to the audience. And this is a man who in words and deeds is exactly what the film’s title says: a man of his word. He is shown as a bishop in his native Argentina from 15 or 20 years ago preaching the same message he conveys as pope, and that message is that the church must minister to the poor and destitute. And he is shown, in his current role, doing just that, as he washes, and then kisses, the feet of the poor, the ill, refugees, those in prison, and the other outcasts of society that he seeks out in his work.
In one fascinating scene early in the film, he is shown preaching to the cardinals, presumably shortly after his election, as they all appear to be gathered as they would be only at such a time. The camera focuses on groups of the cardinals as the pope is heard telling them of the 15 “diseases” of which they are all afflicted. Among the diseases he identifies are “gossip,” “spiritual Alzheimer’s” and “displaying funereal faces.” And, of course, the camera shots of the cardinals show many of them looking decidedly funereal. The essence of his message in that sermon is that they must look to themselves to be better Christians. He tells them to give up the trappings of the position and to be humble in their service to others. The message in the scene is obvious: these men need to reform in order for the church to reform.
And Francis is all about reform. He is seeking a church that preaches respect for the planet and for the poorest of the peoples who live on it. He projects a sense of humility at the same time that he sounds and acts like the kind of Christian that Christ and Paul had in mind when they spoke and wrote the words that are the essence of Christian dogma.
In another scene, Francis is shown travelling to a location in a little puddle-jumper of a car that is surrounded by the larger limousines and luxury sedans that his entourage and security force travel in. It is a comical scene and yet a very real one, as Francis eschews the riches of his office in favor of the kind of life that St. Francis reportedly led.
Another pivotal scene shows Francis addressing a joint session of Congress. As then Speaker Boehner cries openly behind him, the pope tells the senators and representatives that they must protect the planet and stop supporting the gun trade, which, he says, “is simply for money … money drenched in blood.” And in yet another scene (which received major media attention at the time), he answers a reporter’s question about his view of homosexuality by saying, in essence, “Who am I to judge?” He later built on that thought by telling a Chilean who came out to him as gay that “God made you that way.”
In scene after scene, Francis is shown greeting people in impoverished or destitute conditions. The love he shows them, and that they show him in return, is palpable. His face, as he smiles to the camera, suggests that he believes what he says and that he does what he believes. The film is a credit to its maker, just as the pope is a credit to his.