Click here to listen to the flashback interview with Evgeny Afineevsky for CRIES FROM SYRIA.
FRANCESCO can be classified as a hagiography of Pope Frances. Certainly, what Evgeny Afineevsky shows us of His Holiness is a man of great faith and great, notably ecumenical, compassion. Even when Frances makes a blunder about the sexual abuse scandal that roiled the early part of his papacy, his response when confronted with incontrovertible evidence does the near miraculous by moving the creaky wheels of the Vatican bureaucracy into unaccustomed high speed to address it. Afineevsky, though, has more on his mind here, and that would be bringing the world’s attention to the people to whom Francis gravitates: the oppressed and the refugees. Most of the film concerns itself with the Pope’s visits to refugee camps and war-torn regions, including the victims of the largest human migration crisis since World War II, a crisis caused not just by politics, but also by human-caused climate change, that is, in the words of one of the talking heads here, not media friendly in a 24-hour news cycle.
This being a portrait of Pope Francis, we learn much about his life before he became the Bishop of Rome, including the influence of his refugee grandmother, a devout woman who fled Mussolini’s Italy for Argentina. The Holy Father himself never comments on it directly, but it’s suggested by others interviewed that this is the reason he has appointed so many women, not all of them nuns, to influential postings within the Vatican, and for his affinity for refugees. Also included is is the moment he heard the call to become a priest while still a teenager, and why he chooses to live a communal life rather than an imperial one as pontiff. It is for the others Afineevsky interviews, including the Pope’s nephew and a large circle of friends that include a parish priest in Buenos Ares, and the faith leaders from all three of the world’s Abrahamic religions, to tell most of the story. The man they describe is humble, but with a great sense of humor and a preternatural gift for empathy. When he was elected, he didn’t bless the people, he asked them to pray for him, a telling break with tradition.
There is controversy. The criticism he received at the time for his silence during the times of Argentina’s political upheaval is addressed, with the exoneration falling in line with Francis’ miraculous blend of both political savviness and true Christian humility, an aspect of the manEvgeny Afineevsky that deserver further exploration. Then there is how His Holiness got it wrong when charges were made against a Chilean bishop. A clip of him dismissing the charges in included, as is the steps he took when shown how wrong he was. He did more than issue an apology to the bishop’s accusers and institute the ci-mentioned sweeping changes. He sat down with those accusers, one whom, Juan Carlos Cruz, is still visibly affected by the private, three-hour conversation he had with Frances. He recounts that by apologizing to him personally, the Pope gave him back his dignity, while also telling him, in effect, there’s nothing wrong with being gay.
Afineevsky cuts back and forth between Frances’ personal history, and his impact as a pope whose spiritual journey is made through the most desperate places on earth. He finds the connections in his early life that shaped his world view, though if there is a flaw in the film, and it’s a small one, it’s the lack of direct conversation with the Pope himself. There was only one conversation, and it seems to have been a short one. The filmmaker has access to those around him, but most of Francis’ words are from speeches and spoken in the course of his travels, with commentary by those close to him on the deeper significance of what we are seeing. Those travels are telling. Sometimes to address the U.N. or a joint session of Congress, but mostly they are to the most desperate places on earth–refugee camps in Syria, the persecuted Rohingya in Myanmar–and doing the unexpected. He refuses a military guard in the most dangerous locations, he brings back to Rome three Muslim families from a refugee camp in Lampedusa. It’s his way of making an indelible point the same way he did with his Vatican clerical staff by visiting the reserved parking and asking the Swiss Guards to write down who owned the expensive cars he saw parked there. He never said a word to the owners, but the cars parked there quickly changed from expensive to economical.
Afineevsky presents a man who seems too good to be true. And yet, what this pontiff chooses to say and do makes you want to believe. And even if you can’t, might just provoke the question in ourselves about why we can’t believe.
The closing credits of FRANCESCO appear over the image of the Vatican at night. Projected onto the imposing structure at the center of Roman Catholicism is a light show that includes images of butterflies and celestial bodies that evoke spiritual awe and wonder. It is the expected sort of thing. What is not expected, though it surely is closer to the instructions Jesus left with his followers to love one another, are the images of refugees, of the poor, and of the sick, as well as reminders of the ecological damage wreaked upon our planet by humankind. It’s fitting that this light show should include the several paths to spiritual growth, including the very hard work of taking the garden given to us, and making it a paradise without waiting for a deus ex machina to handle it. On the other hand, after watching this documentary about Pope Francis, you can’t help thinking, or is it wishing, that the former Jorge Mario Bergoglio might be just that, if only metaphorically.