Gianfranco Rosi is one of Italy’s most important living documentary filmmakers. His films include El Sicario, Room 164 (2010), Sacro GRA (2013), and Fire at Sea (2016), which was nominated for an Oscar. His most recent film is In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, which is largely composed of archival footage shot during the pope’s thirty-seven journeys to fifty-three countries over the course of nine years. He spoke recently with Commonweal associate editor Griffin Oleynick. Their conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
Griffin Oleynick: The tenth anniversary of Francis’s pontificate coincided with the first anniversary of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, which the pope was initially hesitant to directly condemn. How did the outbreak of war in Ukraine affect the making of In Viaggio?
Gianfranco Rosi: Enormously. I began making the film a little more than one year ago, before the beginning of the war. Initially it was impressionistic, without a definite structure or progression.
But last spring I traveled with the pope to Malta, where he spoke out strongly against the war in Ukraine. That was the moment when “history” intruded into my editing process, devouring everything I’d made before. It also threw me into a crisis, making me realize that I really needed to structure In Viaggio chronologically.
So I began with Pope Francis’s famous visit to the island of Lampedusa in the Mediterranean Sea in 2013. He spoke out in defense of migrants and refugees, and criticized our indifference to the suffering of those on the margins. His remarks back then were prophetic, setting him on a trajectory that led to his antiwar speech in Malta almost a decade later. When I heard it, it just crystallized everything for me, and In Viaggio became like a kind of cinematic Rubik’s Cube—the pieces fell into place.
I also returned to the footage of Pope Francis’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow, which took place in Cuba in 2014. To me, it seemed like Francis had had a premonition. Alluding to Putin’s invasion of Crimea, the pope told Kirill that one day the “war would touch us all” unless we confronted it right then. He was actually talking about Crimea, and unfortunately, he was right—that conflict has indeed affected the whole world.
We can think of Pope Francis as a “contemporary of the future.” There’s a moment in the film that is a metaphor for how the pope’s prophetic thinking reaches us. It’s when he meets (by video conference) a group of astronauts living at the International Space Station during the pandemic. Seated at his desk in the Vatican, Francis simply says, “Good morning!” Then there’s complete silence, a long pause. After a few seconds, the pope’s voice finally arrives, so that the astronauts can hear him. In a sense, that’s the way it is with all of us, too.
GO: I’m struck by some of the formal choices you made in the film, which are unconventional by today’s documentary standards, especially for films about the pope. There’s no voiceover narration and very little context or exposition given—In Viaggio almost feels like a cinéma vérité film from the 1960s, or even a visual poem. Tell us about that.
GR: Yes, the film is very experimental. I don’t like making distinctions between fiction and documentary. For me, there’s just cinema, and what matters is whether a film is true or false. My process is different from, say, a director of feature films. I don’t use actors. And unlike many documentarians, I don’t have a huge staff. I’m a one-man crew working with reality. But I’m always attentive to the visual language of cinema: I add and subtract, taking reality and transforming it into something else. That’s always my challenge.