THE STORY – A decade-long chronicling of the travels of the head of the Catholic church across all corners of the world. Composed entirely of archival footage, the film grants rare access to the public life of the pontifical, not only from the elevated security of a pulpit but from the more democratic grounds of unpaved streets and vast public avenues.
THE CAST – Pope Francis
THE TEAM – Gianfranco Rosi (Director/Writer)
THE RUNNING TIME – 77 Minutes
Director Gianfranco Rosi, a recipient of both the prestigious Berlin International Film Festival Golden Bear and Venice International Film Festival Golden Lion awards, is a cinematic traveler, using his movie camera to capture images from the furthest corners of the globe. In his latest film, “In Viaggio” (On Voyage), he follows Pope Francis, one of the world’s most prolific, revered globetrotters. Premiering out of competition at the 79th Venice Film Festival, “In Viaggio” explores the Pope’s place as an iconic but divisive figure during his many international visits since the beginning of his papacy and his position as a figure of hope against a backdrop of hopelessness. Mainly using archival footage, the calm, level portrayal nevertheless results in emotional highs and lows, as devastating images of the world’s greatest current tragedies are juxtaposed with the Pope’s uplifting speeches about humanity.
As a filmmaking technique, this method is sometimes overly simplistic in its emotional manipulation. It’s easy to find comfort in a man’s presence when he speaks calmly after images of horror flash onto the screen. The filmmaker and subject fit perfectly. Rosi’s other films have been international in their approach, just as the Pope is an international figure. As seen in Rosi’s other films and heard in the Pope’s speeches, both men share a common interest in mitigating the global refugee crisis. Rosi has typically been occupied by stories of those on the fringes of society, those who go largely unseen and unheard. What happens, the film asks, when Rosi turns the camera onto one of the world’s most seen and heard men in the world? It’s evident that Rosi admires the man. Generally, the film avoids a biased agenda of either outright praise or condemnation, displaying the Pope’s highs and lows without personal intervention. On one occasion, he scolds a man for bringing up sexual abuse committed by a powerful South American catholic figure, only to apologize for his misstep later. In this representation, the only belief that Rosi personally puts forward is that Pope Francis tries and does the best he can with his limited political influence.
As a non-Catholic born in the late 1990s, I’m too young and uninvolved in the Vatican’s affairs to have ever given another Pope any thought. I remember Pope Francis’s election well and the hope that came from his relatively progressive views. Whether or not he has lived up to that hope is up for debate. As shown by this film, his popularity amongst his followers is clear. The crowds that come out to see him are colossal; the screams and cries are comparable only to those typically reserved for a rockstar. By far, the film’s most stunning images are those of devout Roman Catholics experiencing ecstasy from just seeing him in person, let alone being granted a hand or kiss on the forehead. Even for non-believers or viewers of other faiths, the euphoria is contagious, at least for the first hour.
In more ways than one, the film presents itself as impersonal and standoffish. As an audience, we leave the film knowing nothing about Pope Francis on an intimate level, as it reflects his perception by the public. The same could be said about Rosi’s filmmaking style, which is almost clinical in its voice (or lack thereof). Last year, films like “Fire of Love” and “Moonage Daydream” demonstrated the vast spectrum of artistic expression and entertainment that archival documentaries could accomplish. To say that “In Viaggo” isn’t entertaining isn’t necessarily a failure on behalf of the filmmaker; this hands-off approach was perhaps his exact intention. The audience, however, may be less than satisfied with this approach, as the spellbinding effect of Pope Francis’ presence can only hold one’s attention for so long.
One image the film presents is the Pope alone in St. Peter’s Basilica. Often surrounded by crowds, fanfare, and mania, this image is striking and even terrifying in its emptiness. It’s also the film’s most personal moment when the magnitude and strain of his position are made visually clear. In a director’s statement, Rosi expresses his intention behind the film’s conception with a question: “Would it be possible to turn this sea of rough neutral reportage into a compelling portrait of this man?”
Of course, no documentary film can be objective or neutral, regardless of how hard the filmmaker tries. Still, Rosi allows the Pope to speak for himself without interruption or commentary from historians or theologians, offering modern viewers a unique opportunity to experience his words and doctrines as they have existed over the years.