Pope Francis was recently bathed in movie love, courtesy of Fernando Meirelles’s The Two Popes, with its excellent performances from Jonathan Pryce as Pope Francis, and Anthony Hopkins as the now emeritus Pope Benedict XVI; this film sentimentally imagined a pontiff bromance between the outgoing conservative and incoming liberal. The truth might be more complicated. Before that, there was Wim Wenders’s deeply respectful documentary Pope Francis: A Man of His Word, which paid tribute to Francis’s new engagement with issues such as the climate crisis, refugees and inequality.
Now there is another docu-celebration, from the Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky (Winter on Fire), who perhaps has had direct interview access with his subject, though it isn’t clear; there is some bland material of Francis talking to someone off-camera. As ever, the pope’s forthright and unselfconscious discussion of global issues such as poverty is impressive – he is the only world leader doing so – but, like the Wenders film, this is another baffling act of complete submission, a glossy promo video for His Holiness, with innumerable drone shots of cities worldwide, loads of Hello!-mag-style interviews with supportive friends and colleagues (but no critics), and regular screenshots of His Holiness’s tweets, including one on pollution in 2015: “The earth, our home, is beginning to look more and more like an immense pile of filth.” A somewhat unfortunately phrased or translated remark, which you can imagine some of his predecessors making in many different contexts.
The big difference between this documentary and Wenders’s is that this addresses the pope’s huge change of heart on child abuse, especially the case of Juan Carlos Cruz, who wrote a letter to the pope detailing his abuse at the hands of Father Fernando Karadima in Santiago, Chile; Francis initially dismissed this as “slander”, but then did a complete turnaround, defrocking Karadima and apologising to Cruz. Here is the one real issue where something is personally at stake for the pope: perhaps the whole film should have been about this. But just like Wenders, Afineevsky has nothing on the pope’s most extraordinary pronouncement, on the Charlie Hebdo murders in 2015: “If my good friend Alberto Gasparri [his travel adviser] says a curse word against my mother, he can expect a punch. It’s normal. You cannot provoke. You cannot insult the faith of others.” A punch? Twelve people were murdered in reprisal for satire, an outrage followed by and connected to a kosher supermarket siege two days later in which four Jewish people were killed.
This is another well-intentioned but syrupy and pointless hagiography.