Early in In Viaggio, a Coast Guard radar antenna spins in the night, a stark visual accompanied only by the harrowing audio of desperate migrants pleading for help as their boat sinks off the coast of Italy. This same moment was used in Italian director Gianfranco Rosi’s acclaimed (and heartbreaking) 2016 documentary Fire at Sea about the migrant crisis in the Mediterranean. At the time, the newly-elected Pope Francis headed to the island of Lampedusa to make a plea and a prayer for those people attempting this harrowing and often deadly journey, criticizing the “globalization of indifference” as cultures and countries turn a blind eye to suffering. It was an introduction Pope Francis’ style and message of empathy, as shown in this documentary by Rosi that starts at that moment and follows the first nine years of his pontificate.
It is noted at the beginning of In Viaggio that it is mostly a collection of archival footage with some more intimate moments shot by Rosi as he traveled with the Pope. The film is stark and to the point, with no talking heads and no soundtrack, letting Pope Francis’ message to his followers (and to the press) speak for itself. This mostly works in the film’s favor, as Pope Francis has always (in my opinion) exuded warmth and caring–traits that believers and non-believers (like myself) respond to, that feels (in my opinion) so different from his modern predecessors. But as the film goes on, and his message (as admirable as it is) seems to fall on deaf ears, there is bit of a hopeless feeling of, “Well, now what?”
During the nine-year span of this film (which goes up to 2022), Pope Francis visited 53 countries on 37 trips, an astonishing and exhausting itinerary. What is more impressive were the places he went, going out of most world leaders’ comfort zones to places like the Central African Republic and Cuba, and even meeting with Iraq’s Shia Muslim leader Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani (a moment toward the end of the film where both leaders look old and tired). A notable moment was his visit to Canada to apologize for the Catholic Church’s cruel (and deadly) role in taking Indigenous children and boarding them in “residential schools” to assimilate them into European-based culture. In another speech he condemns the sexual abuse of minors by the Catholic Church’s own priests, promising to “hold them to account.” At one point, Pope Francis even makes a surprising personal apology for his own poor choice of words in Chile, where he had told victims to provide a “letter of proof” of their abuse by clergy… which he then he realized was “a slap in the face” to victims.
Where In Viaggio is the most interesting is when the camera just sits still and watches Pope Francis with his devoted followers. He visits a prison in Juarez, Mexico, where incarcerated men and women in matching sweat suits walk up to him and greet him one by one. The longer this scene goes on, you can’t help but notice that he makes at attempt to connect with each person, whether he gets a hug or a casual handshake. But the images from his visit to the Philippines in 2015 during a deadly typhoon sticks with me the most. Thousands of his followers, wearing matching yellow rain ponchos, attended his outdoor mass in wind and rain. As he greeted some of these suffering people one by one, instead of smiles and hugs they wept and kneeled, clutching and kissing his hand as he bowed his head in prayer. One person after another. For someone outside of organized religion like myself, this almost moved me to tears, as the comfort and hope he provided emanated off the screen. Pope Francis, I’d say despite the problems of the traditional church he represents, has always come across as a true holy man. This documentary, while not being critical or introspective of the man or the Catholic Church, is still a fascinating peek at this revered religious leader and his role in the modern world.