This article appeared in the March 30, 2023 edition of The Film Comment Letter, our free weekly newsletter featuring original film criticism and writing. Sign up for the Letter here.
In viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis (Gianfranco Rosi, 2022)
At the end of Gianfranco Rosi’s new documentary, In viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis, the Pope is praying. Pleading with God to “illuminate our consciences,” he asks that humankind not be abandoned to its deeds. “Stop us, Lord,” he says. “Stop us.”
Those are startling words to hear out of the mouth of the most famous figure in Christendom. In the movies, popes are sometimes anxious and reluctant, sometimes pompous and preachy, sometimes corrupt, and sometimes just weird. Less often are they shown interceding on behalf of humanity.
But the prayer is very much in keeping with the portrait of Francis that Rosi paints—equal parts joyful and contrite. It’s not at all difficult to see what prompted the documentary, constructed largely out of publicly available archival footage shot during Francis’s travels. (The Vatican, however, provided Rosi with higher-resolution footage than what you can get on the internet.) The director’s previous films, including Fire at Sea (2016) and Notturno (2020), bring the crises of the global poor and the displaced to vivid life in deeply humane and personal ways. Those same people—migrants, refugees, the imprisoned, the neglected—are whom Jorge Mario Bergoglio has focused much of his work on since assuming the title of Pope Francis a decade ago.
Footage from Fire at Sea and Notturno also turns up in In viaggio (in English, “traveling”), spliced into sermons and speeches, as if to illustrate the realities the Pope speaks of. The film is almost exclusively devoted to Francis’s extensive globe-trotting over the past 10 years. In viaggio showcases an unusually cosmopolitan figure, with theological reflections directly related to the geopolitical concerns that affect the poor and the disenfranchised. He is very much a pope for the 21st century, whose candor, understanding of mass technology, and interest in reaching audiences far beyond the pews of the Catholic church make him especially appealing to filmmakers.
And so, Rosi shows us footage of Francis in his stripped-down popemobiles on several continents, waving to the crowds as he drives by. Sometimes his cape flies up over his head and he has to smooth it down. He addresses journalists on his private plane, at times apologizing, or explaining word choices that have provoked controversy (as when he referred to the Armenian genocide that began in 1915 as “the first genocide of the 20th century”). He greets prisoners one by one, trying humbly to keep them from kneeling before him. He speaks more and more, over the years captured in the footage, about the church’s greatest sin against humanity, addressing a room full of cardinals sharply about the “crimes and sins of the sexual abuse of minors.”
Rosi has said that his aim in In viaggio was to provide a portrait of the traveling Francis, because he is a “different Pope than the Pope in the Vatican”—on the road, he’s in a pastoral mode. Other filmmakers have captured other Francises; he has, in fact, become a bit of a movie star. Perhaps the most famous documentary about him is Wim Wenders’s Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which premiered at Cannes in 2018; in that film, Francis speaks extensively about his views, more a humanist philosopher than a pastor. Evgeny Afineevsky’s Francesco (2020) and Nicolas Brown’s The Letter: A Message for Our Earth (2022) also offer nonfiction portraits of Francis, while 2015 saw the release of two biopics (Call Me Francis and Francis: Pray for Me) that focused on glimpses of his pre-papal life.
And then there is, of course, The Two Popes, Fernando Meirelles’s Oscar-nominated 2019 drama in which Francis is played, with fairly spot-on fidelity, by Jonathan Pryce as a kindly, somewhat impish cardinal struggling to overcome his reluctance to ascend the papal seat. But it’s not just Francis who’s attracted cinematic attention: The Two Popes showed up on screen in the middle of a renewed interest in the papacy as a matter of drama, or even melodrama. Paolo Sorrentino’s films are often haunted by Catholicism (The Great Beauty, by my lights, is a masterful film about religious ambivalence), so his creation and direction of The Young Pope, a 2016 series starring Jude Law as a hard-line fundamentalist pope, was a perfect fit. The second season, released in 2020, was dubbed The New Pope, with John Malkovich in the title role.
The Young and New Pope are both juicy, strange, and often startling series, focusing on the politics of the Vatican, which extend all over the world and often smash alarmingly into more earthly concerns, like the taxation of church buildings or the manipulation of local water supplies. In the show, scandal haunts the Vatican—sexual and financial misdeeds, vanity, hubris, scheming, even (maybe) murder. Which of course makes a lot of sense. The concept of a pope—a leader with a huge amount of power that is strangely undefined, at least in the modern era—is fertile ground for all kinds of tales. The papacy is a very old position with a history of strife and chaos; there have been multiple popes at times, and deeply corrupt popes, and popes challenged by kings. The role is shrouded in mystery and obtains a kind of medieval quality, not least because of all the Latin and the rites and the robes. How could a storyteller resist?
That air of gothic secrecy lends itself seamlessly to horror- and thriller-tinged portraits. Morte in Vaticano (1982), for instance, features an assassination attempt on a pope by a former student. Angels and Demons (2009), the second movie in the Da Vinci Code series, takes place as the papal conclave convenes to elect a new pope, with more attempted assassinations and cover-ups and conspiracies and shenanigans. There’s also The Pope’s Exorcist, an upcoming film based on the stories of Father Gabriele Amorth, a priest in Rome who claimed to have cured tens of thousands of cases of demonic possession. And the ordinary scandals of the popes, who are both world leaders and yet a bit unworldly, are fodder for the movies, too; the papal banking scandal of 1981 and the death of John Paul I inspired important plot points in The Godfather Part III. (The future pope even absolves Michael Corleone.)
Once in a while, we get a comedy: Nanni Moretti’s 2011 film, We Have a Pope, which Cahiers du cinéma declared to be the best film of that year, features a deeply disinclined cardinal who is elected pope against his wishes, and has to call in a psychoanalyst to help him with his extreme anxiety. It’s relatable. Popes: they’re just like us! But what’s funnier is all the absurd ways in which they’re like no one else: the hats, the grandeur, the pomp, the white smoke, the fact that the pope’s home base is literally its own tiny country. Indeed, plenty about the papacy has never been funny, and the things the pope says and does can have—and have had—horrible effects on the lives of those deemed to be outside the bounds of God’s law. But also, as a performance, the whole thing can feel pretty ludicrous.
That mix of the powerful and the performative, the sacred and the banal, might be what In viaggio captures best. Yes, the film ends with Francis pleading with God to stop the hand of man, and Rosi’s mixture of the Pope’s preaching against apathy, division, and violence with his own footage of people struggling to survive at sea, or in war-torn landscapes, is stark and serious. But shortly before the end of the film, Francis is shown chatting with the astronauts on the International Space Station, in a conversation that took place in 2017. He appears to be seated alone in a cavernous room in the Vatican, wearing his white robes and simple cap, greeting six people in jumpsuits on a screen placed several feet away from him. He calls out a hello, and then… we wait, as words travel through space. The movie doesn’t cut away. It’s an awkward silence, and it’s funny. As if aware of the humor of it all, Francis sits there smiling.
In that moment, Francis, a famed religious figure revered by billions, whose portrait hangs on walls all over the world, is just a man on earth, waiting for a satellite signal to reach the heavens. The effect is a little startling. Those who regard the pope as holy, and even those who don’t, find the space between themselves and Francis reduced, some of his closely guarded mystery replaced with humanity. That means that when he pleads with God to stay the hand of man, it feels less like another message sent to the heavens and more like one aimed at us.
Alissa Wilkinson is a senior culture writer and critic at Vox, and an associate professor of English and humanities at The King’s College in lower Manhattan.