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Francesco the film: ‘The path is opened by walking’

  • 27 October 2020
For such well loved and equally reviled figures, it is no surprise that popes, real and imagined, continue to fascinate film makers and provide fertile ground for their creativities. The results vary from the saucy intrigue of The Borgias to the quasi comic We have a Pope. More recently there has been a swing to more realistic portrayals, with Fernando Meirelles’ The Two Popes succeeding best in bringing reality and fiction together into am enjoyable entertainment package.

Evgeny Afineevsky’s documentary, Francesco, comprises a different kind of entertainment altogether. The result of a more personal search by the agnostic and Jewish Afineevsky, it successfully depicts the extraordinary activity and breadth of a modern-day pontificate. But light, feelgood entertainment it is not. The immediacy of the cinematography, parallel presentation of major themes with commentary provided by interviews and stills of tweets, combine to make the viewer feel in the middle of the events portrayed, at once engaging and unsettling. Indeed, the film’s power lies in its ability to get past papal theatre, through the persona to the human connection and engagement that drives Pope Francis’ pontificate.

Afineesvsky is known best internationally for a series of documentaries culminating in 2013’s Academy Award nominated, visceral Winter of Fire — the story of the Ukrainian revolution — and 2017’s harrowing Cries from Syria about the Syrian war. At the viewing I attended, the director spoke of his personal struggle in the making of, particularly, Cries and his desire to link his next project with something more humane and hopeful.

Insofar as there is hope in Francesco, it emerges gradually through an intimate viewing of the Pope’s engagement with the ‘hot button’ issues of our day, the environment and climate change, refugees and immigration, violence and conflict, disparity of wealth and poverty, women’s place in society and Church, family and sexuality, and sexual abuse within the Church.

Among these are some extraordinarily poignant moments as Pope Francis, who, a cardinal informs us incredulously, made no armoured protection a condition of his visit, attends a mosque and meets its congregation in the poor KM5 Muslim quarter of Central African Republic’s capital, Bangui. On the other side of town, he is welcomed by poor school children carrying messages of peace and welcome drawn on pieces of cloth. In another, he angrily orders his minders to leave a group of Rohingya refugees on stage with him, begging the refugees’ forgiveness for not uttering the