Reviewed By Thyronne Millaud-FRANCESCO is the latest feature from Oscar and Emmy award-nominated documentary director, Evengy Afineevsky, focusing on the social advocacy of Pope Francis. Some might say it almost comes off as a puff piece produced to be screened as the Pope is presented with some sort of lifetime achievement award utilizing news footage and interviews with friends, family members, colleagues, and even people whose lives have been affected directly by Pope Francis. But I think it was important to start that way so we can see the impact of his role as Pope and the influence of the Catholic Church around the world.
Born Jorge Mario Bergoglio in Buenos Aires into a family that had fled the fascist regime of Italy’s Benito Mussolini, the film tells the story of how he was influenced by his religious grandmother’s activism and faith to study science and medicine and eventually theology and becoming a priest, a Jesuit, who are renowned for their vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience. In the 1970’s when Argentina experienced the military junta, known as the Dirty War, Bergoglio, was the Jesuit Provincial superior, and quietly worked behind the scenes to help people escape and avoid the killings and disappearances that plagued this period in their history. Even though he was denounced as working with the military leaders and involved in the kidnapping of two Jesuit priests, the film explains that he worked behind the scenes for their release but his extreme sense of humility didn’t speak about it until years later.
Much of the film focuses on his activism and compassion for refugees and victims of genocide and oppression. He is very vocal about how he believes humans are destroying the environment leading to many of the natural dIsasters that cause many of these migrant crises. He also argues that rich Western countries should do a better job of dealing with these issues while contrasting what the poor country of Bangladesh has done to absorb the Rohingya Muslims fleeing ethnic cleansing in Myanmar. We see how he ignores ethnicity and religious belief to see these people’s humanity and by going in person without armored vehicles to walk among the affected people and talk to them one to one he brings media attention that these crises would not otherwise receive. He goes to Syria, Central America, Africa, the southern US border, and the wall between Jewish and Palestinian Israel, among other places. Everywhere he goes he is followed by cameras and reporters shining a light on these tragic issues. We see him addressing heads of states, the UN, and many of the suffering people themselves. At one point he brings three Muslim families to live in Rome to show that we should accept and help people based on their humanity and not the religion they practice.
One issue that Francis seemed to struggle with is a sexual abuse case that three men brought against the Church in Chile. At first, he dismisses it saying there is nothing but accusations, and when there’s evidence, bring the evidence to him. Eventually, he has a change of heart, meets with the victims, then dismisses all the clergy members involved in the cover-up from their positions of power, and defrocked the abuser. The film also illustrates his liberal attitude (as compared to other Pope’s) towards women suggesting the influence of his grandmother. One of the interviews is a man in a homosexual relationship who attends a papal mass and leaves behind a letter to the Pope explaining his frustration and apprehension of bringing his adopted children to mass and introducing them to the congregation. The man receives a personal phone call from Pope Francis himself who tells him not to worry, bring his children back to church. The Pope told him, “God made you gay and loves you as you are” and he goes on to say that for the past three years they have been welcome and supported in the church. He seems to advocate for civil unions, but never says anything about his thoughts on gay marriage. This segment seems to really support Afineevsky’s case for Pope Francis being the most liberal and progressive Pontiff in history. That is until one considers that just last week, the Vatican issued a decree that Catholic priests cannot bless same-sex unions as God cannot bless ‘sin’.
FRANCESCO is a beautifully shot film with lots of drone footage from all over the world and some very compelling interviews and news footage that stand testament to the goodness of Pope Francis as the movie describes him as “a staunch supporter of the defenseless and the oppressed”. He may not be a perfect man, but he is a great man who lets his actions do the talking.