Pope Francis Gives Private Advice to a Filmmaker: 'Be Courageous and Risk'

Pope Francis cares deeply about forced migration, and it’s at the center of the new film from Gianfranco Rosi, an Oscar nominee for 2016’s Fuocoammare. The Pope and director connected after Francis watched the film, shot on Lampedusa, a Sicilian island at the heart of the European migrant crisis. Their bond led to Rosi’s In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis.

In Viaggio follows our very modern Pope on his pilgrimages to the least fortunate among his 1.3 billion believers — from his 2013 trip to Lampedusa, where he spoke about the “globalization of indifference,” to his journey last year to Malta, where he walked in the footsteps of St. Paul and railed against Vladimir Putin’s “infantile” war against Ukraine. 

Pope Francis was impressed enough by Rosi that the Vatican agreed to provide the Italian director with hundreds of hours of footage from the Pope’s travels. But what to do with the images was not always obvious to the director. 

What began as an impressionistic portrait of Francis was transformed by the Ukraine war. In 2014, the Pope said the conflict in Donbas must be contained so it didn’t escalate into an international crisis, but state leaders did not heed his call.  MovieMaker spoke with Rosi about his 10-year friendship with Pope Francis, migration, and the advice Francis gave him in private. 

Joshua Encinias: Are you Catholic?

Gianfranco Rosi: I am not Catholic, I’m not a believer. I tried to make this film in a very secular way. I wanted to make a portrait of one of the most powerful figures in the religious world and not be ideological and not be theological. 

Pope Francis Documentary Is a ‘Portrait of a Human Being’

Joshua Encinias: Why did you want to make a documentary about Pope Francis?

Gianfranco Rosi: I wanted to create a portrait of a human being. It’s also a portrait of solitude, which comes on very strong towards the end, when you can almost feel the pressure on him. I liken what he goes through like the Stations of the Cross.

Every place he visits becomes an element of his meditation; moments where he encounters places, people, and the political, geopolitical, and historical dynamics of the world. All of these elements create a portrait of a man who is a revolutionary, because this Pope opened up the church to many of its taboos. 

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Joshua Encinias: The point of movies is in its name: movement. Will you talk about making your movies about travel and migration?

Gianfranco Rosi: From my first film up to Notturno, there’s always a theme of travel, the theme of discovering, the theme of being somewhere. It’s been my own pattern. In this film, I wanted to create a visual of the Pope that is outside the walls of the Vatican. When we travel, I believe that we always give up something in order to encounter something that is not part of our daily life.

By traveling, Pope Francis gives up a lot of things that are part of daily life within the Vatican. And when he travels there’s this very strong change in him. The change comes in the moment he’s encountering people. You see in the movie he’s completely involved with the people he’s around.

Pope Francis on Forgiveness

Joshua Encinias: Sometimes when we visit cultures outside our own, communication breaks down. Pope Francis often has to clarify or apologize for something he’s said after a pilgrimage.

Gianfranco Rosi: This is a Pope who is able to ask for forgiveness. We see him ask forgiveness two or three times in the movie. But not only in the name of the church, like when he does in his pilgrimage to Canada, where he apologized for the church’s colonialism and for committing cultural genocide.

Also in the trip to Chile, when he’s defending the position of Bishop Juan Barros, he realized that asking for proof that the bishop covered up a child sex abuse scandal was the wrong proposition. Somehow, he was able to ask forgiveness in public. For what I remember, no Pope ever did that in their own personal way. So this is a Pope that is able to ask for forgiveness!

Making mistakes is human, but recognizing our mistakes in the right moment is courageous. The film shows we also don’t have to wait too long to ask for forgiveness. We can make a mistake, we have to ask forgiveness, and we have to learn not to wait too long to ask forgiveness.

Joshua Encinias: How did you decide what story to tell?

Gianfranco Rosi: I filmed two of the Pope’s trips, to Canada and Malta, and I went through the Vatican’s hundreds of hours of footage with my editor to select what to use. At the beginning of the film, I had an impressionistic structure. It had no commentary, no speculation, no chronological structure. It came out like a film which was extremely free and almost poetic. 

But then I traveled with the Pope to Malta, the Ukraine war was just beginning, and he made his very strong speech against it. I went back to Rome and started editing the film when suddenly I discovered that history devoured my film completely. The 80 minutes I already completed didn’t make sense anymore, and I collapsed a bit.

I was willing to give up this project after six months of work. I said, “It doesn’t make any more sense. What’s happening right now has such an enormous weight that I don’t know if what I’m doing makes sense.” 

Joshua Encinias: What put the movie back on track?

Gianfranco Rosi: At a certain point, after two or three days of emptiness, I had an illumination. In that moment, the most simple thing to do was to tell the story chronologically. We start the film with his first papal trip to Lampedusa and we follow his trips by dates and places. After I did that the film had its own weight.

There’s almost a prophetic element on him, to see what’s ahead. His trip to Lampedusa up to the last trip to Malta where he’s facing the Ukraine war creates a perfect composition of his thinking about armies, war, dignity, inmates, and the climate. 

Joshua Encinias: What did you learn about the Pope by telling the story chronological that you didn’t know when the movie was more impressionistic?

Gianfranco Rosi: I recut a lot of things that I didn’t understand in the first edit. For example, one of the scene that I left completely out of the first edit was the scene when he’s meeting with Patriarch Kirill of Moscow in Cuba. A journalist on the plane asked what they discussed, and the Pope said, “We discussed our churches and we discussed war.”

And then he said, “This war is very much confined to Ukraine, but if we don’t take care of it now, it’s going to take all of us inside this crisis.” At the time, I didn’t know which war he was talking about. When the Ukraine war broke out one year ago, I realized that he was talking about Donbas.

So in 2014 he already saw the dangers that none of the Western political heads of state saw. When the Pope says something sometimes it takes a while to travel to our ears. We don’t immediately perceive the warning. 

Joshua Encinias: Why is Francis out of focus when he’s on screen during his visit to Canada?

Gianfranco Rosi: It was very important for me to travel with him to Canada because it was a very, very difficult trip. He went there to ask forgiveness for a horrible crime committed by the church. When I went to film the moment when the Pope is asking for forgiveness, they give you a position, you stay there, you use one long lens, and there’s nothing you can do.

When I looked around, there were more than 300 cameras there. Everyone had exactly the same frame! I questioned the point of being there because I could buy this footage online. So when he started the speech, I just put the camera out of focus. 

For me it was almost like entering his mind. I blurred the whole thing to focus on the words. And at the end, I shot this moment of the Pope in meditation where he has his head down. I wanted to really create a moment of doubt — which was not objective, but was very introspective — not knowing if his apology was accepted.

I wanted to create a moment of suspension there, a moment of transition, a moment where history is battling with his journey. That’s why it was so important as a filmmaker to be there. Because if I weren’t on that trip, I would not have this crucial moment in the movie.

Joshua Encinias: What’s something the Pope told you in your private meetings?

Gianfranco Rosi: A few days ago we had a private meeting with him. It was a very emotional moment. People from the production spent 20 minutes with him, and before leaving, and the Pope looked at me and said, “Risk, always risk. Be courageous and risk.” And then he came close and said, “We are surrounded by too many conservative people.” I thought it was an extraordinary message.

In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis is now in theaters and available on demand.

Main image: Pope Francis.