On Easter Weekend, A New Film Documents What Makes Francis Different From Other Popes: He Is Able To Ask Forgiveness

Pope Francis, only a few days after leaving the hospital, is presiding over religious observances during the holiest week in the Roman Catholic faith. As part of Good Friday services today, he took part in a celebration of the Passion of the Lord at St. Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican. 

On Easter Sunday he will preside over mass at the basilica, after which he will deliver the traditional “urbi et orbi” blessing from the central balcony of St. Peter’s. One hundred thousand or more people are expected to crowd St. Peter’s Square for the blessing, a testament not only to the spiritual importance of the occasion but to the popularity of this pope.

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Among the admirers of Francis is the Oscar-nominated filmmaker Gianfranco Rosi, whose new documentary In Viaggio is now playing in New York and available on VOD platforms, including Prime Video, Apple TV, YouTube, and Google Play.

“He is a pope that somehow [recognizes] there is a need of changing things radically within the church,” Rosi tells Deadline. “Is he successful? Not always. Is he trying? Yes. Is this pope different than other popes? I think he is.”

Rosi is the third major filmmaker – all Academy Award nominees – to make a film about Francis in recent years, following Wim Wenders (Pope Francis: A Man of His Word), and Evgeny Afineevsky (Francesco). 

“I’m not a Catholic, I’m not a believer,” Rosi says. “But maybe this helped me to make this film even more free. I wanted to make a film with no ideology, no theological approach. I wanted to make a portrait more of a man than of a pope.”

The title of the documentary – In Viaggio — roughly translates to “Traveling” or “En Route,” and indeed the focus is on the dozens of trips the pope has made outside Rome during the 10 years of his papacy. In the first of them seen in the film, he travels to Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean that became a collection point for migrants trying to cross from North Africa and the Middle East to Europe. Many thousands of people have perished on the dangerous journey, swallowed by the waters, a tragedy captured in Rosi’s film Fire at Sea.

“Who among us has grieved the death of these brothers and sisters?” the pope, draped in purple vestments, asks his audience at an outdoor event. “Who among us has wept for these people who were on the boat? For young mothers carrying their babies? For these men who were seeking a means of supporting their families?”

The pontiff adds disconsolately, “We are a society that has forgotten how to weep, how to share suffering. The globalization of indifference has taken from us the ability to weep!”

In a time of growing nationalism around the globe – India, Brazil, Russia, the U.K. and some other parts of Europe, even the United States – the pope has insisted on a more expansive view of humanity and a “culture of solidarity.” Rosi sees the pontiff as filling a moral vacuum.

“Somehow, in this moment in history, there is no head of state that is able to talk to the whole world,” he observes. “[Francis] talks to believers, non-believers, to Christians, to Muslims, to Jewish [people]… That’s, for me, what moved me about this pope. He’s a man of goodwill.”

Rosi credits Pope Francis with speaking out for the dignity of people and against armed conflict. In one address in the documentary, the pope says, “Every war is born of injustice.”

But with civil wars tearing apart countries on the African continent, and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine claiming tens of thousands of lives, the pope’s pacific message arguably has fallen on deaf ears.

“We start the film [with the pope] saying, ‘Dream, dream, dream.’ And then this dream, it becomes like a nightmare,” Rosi says. “Its decline and its defeat is our defeat, but also the defeat of the pope. He goes around, tries to change things like that. Nothing changes. The world is getting worse… So, the film is a portrait of a pope, but also is a portrait of a lonely man.”

One area where the pope has succeeded, many would say, is restoring some credibility to a church severely damaged by the worldwide scandal involving the sexual abuse of minors by priests. The film shows how the pope altered his approach over time – from shielding some of the clergy accused of mishandling abuse allegations to taking more punitive action. For instance, Pope Francis initially defended how a bishop in Chile, Juan Barros Madrid, responded to a case of sexual abuse committed by a priest in that country. But in 2018, Francis reversed course and accepted Barros Madrid’s resignation. And the pope apologized for how he had dealt with the case.

“This man, this pope, is able to ask forgiveness,” Rosi says, “not only in the name of the church, but also in the name of himself.”

Rosi shot footage with the pope on trips to Malta and Canada, but the documentary’s source material comes primarily from the Vatican archives — hundreds of hours of video that were shared with Rosi. By contrast, Rosi’s previous films, including Notturno and Fire of Sea, consist almost entirely of imagery he shot himself.

“[Usually] I’m the one always in the back of the camera, discovering a story by watching through a viewfinder,” Rosi notes. “And only there I can understand the story. Here, for the first time, I had to step back and bear witness, be a witness of footage that was not shot for me. And I had to adjust to that language. I had to select certain moments that were talking to me.”

The pope’s predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who died in December, resigned from the papacy just over 10 years ago. Francis has only one lung (one was removed when he was young due to infection) and he has suffered other ailments and often gets around now by wheelchair. Rosi says he thinks Francis won’t hesitate to step down if he thinks his health requires it.

“He will know the moment he has to step out from that,” he says. “He will not have any problem doing that.”

Rosi says he and his filmmaking team met with the pope just a few weeks ago at the Vatican. 

“He had fantastic energy, jokes, words for everybody. And before leaving the room, we gave him the DVD of the film that he will never see — because he said never watches things where he’s the protagonist,” Rosi says. “He knew everything about this film, of course. But he said something very important. He said, ‘Be courageous and always risk. Risk and be courageous.’ And then he said, ‘We are surrounded by too many conservative people. There are too many conservative people around us. So always risk and be courageous.’”

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