Documentary Review: “In Viaggio” captures the travels and messages of Pope Francis

The most common image in “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis,” is the one represented in two photographs above.

We see the Argentinian pope, born Jorge Mario Bergoglio, in scores of over-the-shoulder shots, filmed from behind as he rides, waves from and stoops to kiss babies from the Popemobile, rolling into the Central African Republican, mobbed by throngs in Mexico and Malta, greeted with a lot more indifference on the streets of Havana.

“What sort of documentary would that add up to,” the wags among you might ask — lots and lots of shots of crowds waving at the pontiff, mixed with samples of his seriously undynamic multi-lingual public speaking? “A pretty boring one” is the answer.

Vatican-approved writer-director Gianfranco Rosi plumbs the archives of this activist pope’s decade of travel, the 53 countries he’s visited — Japan to Brazil, and many points in between. The sequences Rosi chose to include aren’t exactly animated. But then, neither is this Pope.

The popular, humble and soft-spoken Francis — who took his name from St. Francis of Assisi — makes his mark in this film with his choice of subjects. He speaks often of the tragedies accompanying assaults on human migration, the world’s poor and how they bear the burden of unlivable living conditions, putting them at risk in conflict zones and places vulnerable to a changing climate, doomed to drown as they try to cross the Mediterranean, other seas, deserts and war zones.

We see his speech to the College of Cardinals about the Catholic Church’s shameful abusive priests scandals, hear him apologize for this more than once, hear his “Never again” reflection on the Holocaust in Jerusalem and other genocides (Speaking truth-to-power re: Turkey and the Armenians), express sorrow for the fate of Native Americans/First Nations peoples in Canada and fret over the nature of violence, nationalism and militarism and greed.

The result can’t help but be a film that’s never much more than a sketch, a gloss on the guy in the layers of Papal white whose heart and message seem pro humanity in all the most righteous ways, but whose “leading by example” isn’t always the most cinematic.

Rosi can’t make the man a fire and brimstone preacher or even a Pope John Paul II scold, because it just isn’t in him. But he can capture an emotional moment when Francis enters a poor household in a Brazilian favela where he’s about to speak, a meeting where he tries to mend fences with the assorted Orthodox Church patriarchs, and sits mostly-silent with Muslim imam in Iraq, his mere presence in many of these places speaking volumes.

Francis is at his most enthusiastic in Madagascar, lauding the work Father Pedro Opeka, an Argentinian like the Pope himself, and one dedicated to improving the lives of that island nation’s poorest of the poor, those literally living at the largest garbage dump there.

Those moments, and the spooky scene of Francis crossing the empty St. Peter’s Square, going up the steps of the Basilica at twilight to give a speech mid-COVID lockdown, are all that give much life to this pretty but staid and colorless documentary.

One can’t help but think this Pope deserves more than a simple, stale travelogue.

Rating: unrated, scenes of conflict, poverty

Cast: Pope Francis.

Credits: Scripted and directed by Gianfranco Rosi. A Magnolia release.

Running time: 1:26


About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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