Pope Francis must have a good publicist. His roller coaster numbers seem to be improving despite the dwindling interest in the Catholic Church. Perhaps because the Church’s outdated manner seems more irrelevant when its leader professes himself progressive, the Vatican needs to repair its image with more than a wing and a prayer. The papal comms team is in full swing. For example, there’s a new pope movie every year since Argentine Jorge Mario Bergoglio became Pope Francis. However, there are few installments in the Papal Cinematic Universe prior to his leadership. In franchise terms, this is a pope reboot.
Somehow, the non-fiction side of this franchise, so to speak, has wrangled two top directors into delivering toothless papal puff pieces. After Wim Wenders’ “deal with the devil,” Pope Francis: A Man of His Word comes the ecclesiastical infomercial Francesco from Winter on Fire director Evgeny Afineevsky. Pope Francis seems as saintly these films suggest, but as documentaries, these works leave much to be desired. Before any readers calls me cynical, I’ll note that Fernando Meirelles’s drama The Two Popes had me crying “Hallelujah!”
Afineevsky, like Wenders, delivers access at the expense of insight. Francesco scores an interview with the Pope, but the conversations mostly let him comment upon his achievements. Pope Francis is admittedly a strong character: articulate, charismatic, and compassionate. Faithful viewers may likely find much to admire in this flattering portrait that accounts for Francis’s achievements. The interviews with other talking heads are a mix of praise and self-congratulation, although many of the feats for which the participants celebrate Pope Francis—like his compassion for migrants and his willingness to call-out divisiveness and wall-building as the devil’s work—are admittedly well-earned.
Francesco also touches upon some of the controversial points that were absent from the Wenders doc, like the Catholic Church’s ongoing failure to include women in higher service or the systemic sexual abuse that continues today. Both aspects arise, but they’re mostly framed as learning experiences for Pope Francis and examples of his humility. This point may be true, but Afineevsky doesn’t look closer at the system that perpetuates these injustices. When the head of the Catholic Church is on the hot seat, one has a responsibility to the audience—and the people continually harmed by the church’s failings—to ask the pope the tough questions. After all, he expounds forgiveness, so the act is a chance to let him practice what he preaches.
The doc’s missed opportunity is most evident in its cursory inclusion of LGBTQ rights. Francesco features an interview with a man who wrote to Pope Francis seeking advice on how he and his partner could introduce their kids to the church as a same-sex couple. The man and the pope both recall a positive exchange that included one of Francis’s personal phone calls to the concerned Catholic. This example undeniably speaks to his character. At the same time, it underscores the problem with Pope Francis’s emphasis on “small gestures” over meaning actions. As pope, he can truly make the church inclusive, a point made baldly clear when he tells Afineevsky, “Homosexuals have a right to be a part of the family. They’re children of God and have a right to a family. Nobody should be thrown out or made miserable because of it. What we have to create is a civil union law. That way they are legally covered.” This soundbite, which is already generating mostly positive press, simply lets the church shirk its responsibility. The implication of Francis’s emphasis on “civil union law” over marriage is that he doesn’t have the courage to say that all marriages are equal in the eyes of the Lord.
It’s disappointing to see the comment accepted at face value. When the head of the Catholic Church is on the hot seat, one has a responsibility to the audience—and the people continually harmed by the church’s failings—to ask the pope the tough questions. After all, he expounds forgiveness, so the act is a chance to let him practice what he preaches.
Besides its timidity, Francesco struggles with some tacked on and hastily edited footage that accounts for the pandemic. Cheesy smash-cut freeze frames also introduce the interviews with graphics that don’t do the doc any favours. Similarly, Francesco frequently inserts screengrabs from the pope’s Twitter account to offer his comms’ teams carefully and compassionately versed tweets that are scheduled on the half hour. It’s fine to show how plugged-in and accessible the pope is, but his social media branding shouldn’t replace a director’s follow-up questions.
The Church is one of the world’s most powerful institutions, so both it and its leaders deserve ongoing consideration. But one still needs to account for dramatic arcs, character depth, and the social currents linked to the institution to make such a portrait worth the audience’s time. The Pope Francis docs, so far, are simply missed opportunities to say anything meaningful about the Catholic Church or its leader. Jesus wept.
Francesco opens virtually at Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema on April 1.