Pope Francis appears in In Viaggio (Album/Alamy Stock Photo).

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.

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.

With In Viaggio I was trying to provoke an emotional experience on the part of the audience. If two hundred people see the film, I want them to have two hundred different individual reactions. The audience needs to be totally free to interact with Pope Francis in a very personal way. That’s why I include so much silence in the film. The moments of silence form a kind of backdrop, giving viewers space to breathe and reflect, just as Pope Francis himself takes time for contemplation.

When Pope Francis meets the Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani in Iraq, the entire scene unfolds in total silence. Through the magic of cinema, their silence becomes a kind of voice, an evocation that enables viewers to converse wordlessly with Pope Francis. At least, that’s what In Viaggio has been for me. I’ve spent a lot of my career making movies and calling attention to many of the places he’s traveled to, like Lampedusa, Mexico, and Iraq. So the film is also a kind of personal dialogue with the important work Francis has done there.

Francis is always urging us not to lose our ability to dream. That really became my anchor. This is a pope who speaks to everyone, believers and nonbelievers, with great humility. He talks about urgent historical, political, and moral issues like migration, mass incarceration, climate justice, the arms trade, and war. In a sense the film evokes the great themes of his encyclicals, especially Fratelli tutti. It’s a collage of fragments, eighty minutes drawn from more than eight hundred hours of footage, most of which I didn’t shoot myself. So I was more of a spectator throughout. I wanted to make a portrait of the pope as a man, without resorting to theological or ideological categories.

It’s also true that Pope Francis is not perfect. I actually did get to travel with and shoot him during his trip to Canada last summer. Speaking with Canada’s Indigenous population, he asked forgiveness for the Church’s participation in the horrors and abuses of the residential schools system. I deliberately filmed that scene out of focus, and intercut it with archival images and sounds as if it was taking place inside his own mind.

It was important to show the pope meditating on his own mistakes, and those of the Church. That’s why I also included the scene of Francis’s defensive reaction to a group of reporters in Chile, when he forcefully dismissed allegations of sexual abuse against Bishop Juan Barros. Pope Francis is a man who lives his life in front of cameras, sometimes forgetting that they are there. So he makes mistakes. But more importantly, he knows how to apologize.

GO: Francis’s pontificate has been especially controversial here in the United States, with many American hierarchs openly voicing skepticism about some of his signature initiatives, like the upcoming Synod on Synodality. What role, if any, did intellectual debates—about the future of the Church, say—play in the making of In Viaggio? What do you hope American audiences, both Catholic and secular, will take from it?

GR: My point of view is essentially that of a secular person. Obviously, Pope Francis’s perspective is different, but he does manage to draw attention to issues with universal, political dimensions. He’s an important player in a globalized world.

Francis is always urging us not to lose our ability to dream. That really became my anchor.

Francis is also a revolutionary. He’s changing a lot of things inside the Church, trying to open it up. He’s the first pope to talk openly about the possibility of civil unions for gay people. He never speaks about abortion in an accusatory, aggressive, or judgmental way. He comforts the women who have gone through that painful process. “Who am I to judge?” he asks.

So if the pope is disliked in some quarters, he’s beloved in many more. And by all different kinds of people: Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu. He speaks in a transversal way. In Africa, he addressed a huge gathering of half a million people. But he has an incredible way of focusing on the individual, of communicating and looking at people, at what’s inside them. He touches them, and you can almost feel it in the footage. He has a remarkable capacity for compassion.

But the film isn’t just a portrait of Pope Francis. It’s also a map of the human condition, a Stations of the Cross for today. Or a kind of pilgrimage in reverse. The pope is always traveling to see the people, instead of the faithful coming to him. The only moment of In Viaggio where we see Pope Francis inside the walls of the Vatican is at the beginning of the pandemic, where he prays in an empty, rainy St. Peter’s Square. It’s as if he is embracing the whole world with his words at that moment. So many people saw it and picked up on what he was saying, feeling a connection with him. Being a revolutionary also means being alone. And I think viewers will understand his loneliness.

GO:  Speaking of loneliness, some of the most moving scenes in In Viaggio take place inside prisons, especially when Pope Francis embraces incarcerated individuals. What do you see in those moments?

GR: In March, just before the global release of In Viaggio, Pope Francis invited me and the production staff to the Vatican for a private meeting. It was brief, just twenty minutes or so, but he was extremely warm and open. Before leaving, he told me, “Take risks! Be courageous! Because there are too many conservative people around us.”

That’s just what he does in prisons around the world. When I was editing the film, I got very emotional viewing those scenes. Because it’s really where the pope’s nonjudgmental spirit comes to life and becomes visible. He finds dignity in every person he embraces—even notorious sicarios that may have killed twenty or thirty people. Yet Pope Francis addresses them with dignity, telling them that their experience of prison can change them, that they are not alone.

We will miss Pope Francis after he’s gone. Who’s going to be there to warn us, to remind us of the ways in which we’re dehumanizing our world and each other—all without judging us? Perhaps he’s not changing anything concretely, but he’s speaking as the world’s conscience, reminding us of our failings but also of our dignity.

In Viaggio opens with a phrase: “What’s your position?” These are the words of the Italian coast guard, speaking over the radio to a boat full of migrants sinking in the middle of the Mediterranean. This is another metaphor. For the world to actually change, for our situation to become different, we have to know what our position is. What is our position toward war, climate, poverty, globalization—toward everything? Are we indifferent? Do we really care? What’s my position? That’s what Pope Francis is always urging us to ask ourselves. 

Griffin Oleynick is an associate editor at Commonweal.

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Published in the May 2023 issue: View Contents
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