Award-winning documentarian Evgeny Afineevsky ("Cries from Syria") issues a call for action with his film "Francesco" (Discovery+). The unspoken summons comes through allowing viewers to witness the influence one man, Pope Francis, has succeeded in having over the many social and other issues of our time.
Rather than present a linear biography, the movie takes its form from the Holy Father's own agenda. As depicted here, the pontiff's primary goal is to bring the message of human dignity to the world by shining a light into some of the darkest corners of the globe, where political, social, economic and religious injustices have taken, and in some cases, are still taking place.
Afineevsky, for instance, brings his audience to the Philippines, ravaged by Typhoon Haiyan in 2013, as Francis talks about climate change and the call to protect our common home.
The plight of refugees is highlighted through the Pope's visit to Lampedusa, a modern-day Ellis Island in the Mediterranean Sea through which thousands of Tunisian and Libyan migrants have passed, fleeing political upheaval in their home countries. The passage from the North African coast to Lampedusa is considered one of the world's deadliest migration routes.
The pontiff also visits the island of Lesbos in Greece to which many Syrian migrants fled in the wake of their nation's civil war. One interviewee calls the Syrian refugee situation, "the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II." Pope Francis not only gave words of comfort to refugees -- he followed them up with action, sponsoring the immigration to Italy of three Muslim families.
Pope Francis in war-torn Syria. Photo Credit: Photographic Service L'Osservatore Romano. Courtesy of Discovery+.
"Francesco" also address other hot-button topics such as clergy sexual abuse, homosexuality and the building of walls between peoples.
Through the experience of Juan Carlos Cruz, a Chilean survivor of clergy sexual abuse recently appointed to the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors, Afineevsky takes us through the journey Pope Francis experienced from initially making comments many viewed as hurtful to arriving at a better understanding of victims.
The film's treatment of homosexuality and same-sex marriage may leave some viewers wondering what the Pope actually means when speaking of civil unions for same-sex couples. While some may interpret the Pope's remarks as approving same-sex marriage, that is not the case. The Pope is speaking only of civil unions, which he does allow for to discourage discrimination against same-sex couples. At the same time, he is also clear that sacramental marriage can only be between one man and one woman.
Rather, the Pope calls for respect to be shown toward all, based on each individual's inherent dignity as a human being. Thus, when asked by a same-sex couple whether they should take their children to their home parish, Francis encourages them not to deny the graces of the church to their kids, while also saying that not all will understand their choices.
Where does the pontiff get the inspiration to do all he does? Afineevsky takes us back to the life of young Jorge Bergoglio, especially stressing the influence that his grandmother, Nonna Rosa, had on his growing faith and spirituality.
From his decision to become a priest, to joining the Jesuits, to becoming the Archbishop of Buenos Aires and a cardinal, Pope Francis has been consistent in his action on behalf of others. In other words, the film shows that what Francis has done since his 2013 election to the papacy is just a continuation of what he had done up to that time.
Of special interest to American viewers will be the interviews with Sister Norma Pimentel. As head of Catholic Charities in South Texas' Rio Grande Valley, she has worked closely with refugees from Mexico.
During a virtual papal audience, Sister Norma was recognized by the Pope and, as a representative of all the religious women in the United States, was thanked for her service to the church.
Sister Norma Pimentel meets Pope Francis. Photo Credit: Photographic Service L'Osservatore Romano. Courtesy of Discovery+.
Francis has also been instrumental in appointing women to important posts in the Vatican. They include Silvia Correale, the first female postulator on the staff of the Congregation for the Causes of Saints and Barbara Jatta, the current director of the Vatican Museums.
With a running time just under two hours, "Francesco" is quite long for a documentary. But, among other things that sustain viewer attention, Afineevsky uses news headlines and posts from the @pontifex Twitter account to great effect.
In fact, an April 23, 2020 message from that account aptly summarizes the basic theme the documentarian seeks to promote.
"The pandemic reminds us," the pope tweeted, that "there are no differences or borders between those who suffer. We are all frail, all equal, all precious. May we be profoundly shaken: Now is the time to eliminate inequalities and heal the injustice undermining the health of the entire human family!"
Thanks to Catholic News Service for permission to post this review, slightly edited for clarification.