In 2013, Pope Francis left Rome for the first time since his election to travel to Lampedusa, the southernmost island of Italy and a flashpoint of the European migrant crisis. "I felt that I had to come here today, to pray and to offer a sign of my closeness, but also to challenge our consciences lest this tragedy be repeated," Francis said during a mass on the island. "Please, let it not be repeated!" The plight of Lampedusa also serves as the subject of Italian documentarian Gianfranco Rosi's 2016 film, Fuocoammare (Fire at Sea), which received an Oscar nomination for Best Documentary Feature.
Just shy of a decade later, the pontiff traveled to Iraq, where Rosi had shot 2020's Notturno, about the effects of war on everyday life the Middle East. That their respective callings had taken these drastically different men to the same places with the hope of spotlighting the same issues — poverty, migration, environment, solidarity, and war — was not lost on Rosi, and would eventually serve as the inspiration for his latest documentary, In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis.
"The idea of travelling connects all my films, from my first film, Boatman, to Below Sea Level to El Sicario," Rosi says. "The idea of the journey, which in this case is with the Pope."
In Viaggio — which translates to "en route" or "traveling" — chronicles nine years of the Holy Father's Apostolic Journeys to some 53 countries around the world. Much of the film is composed of archival footage shot by the Vatican, though the filmmaker was able to travel with Pope Francis on three trips; to Malta, Canada, and Africa. "For the first time, I was not a protagonist myself. I usually have to be in a place, meet the people, and find the narration inside my camera. Merging myself with my camera is a process of discovery," Rosi reflects. "In this case, for the first time, I was a witness."
A.frame: As a filmmaker, what excited you about the possibilities presented by In Viaggio?
This film, like all my films, is part of an encounter, which is the encounter I made with the Pope 10 years ago when I did Fuocoammare in Lampedusa. That was his first trip, and after he saw the film, he invited us into the Vatican. That was my first meeting with him. And 10 years later, after I finished Notturno, he was leaving for the Middle East. I had done an interview for L'Osservatore Romano, which is a newspaper of the Vatican, and this interview was read by the Pope before his journey. When they come back, I had the chance of meeting with the people that were accompanying him and they asked me to watch this footage that they filmed in this four- or five-day journey. And I told them immediately, there's not much I can do out of this.
But then I asked how many trips the Pope did, because there were six or seven trips I remember. But when they told me it was — at the time — 34 trips, I was completely amazed. I said, 'It would be wonderful to see this Pope outside the wall of the Vatican and somehow follow him in this journey, this kind of stations of the cross.' Like, a secular and contemporary stations of the cross. An opposite pilgrimage — because before the people used to come to you, and now it's the Pope going to the people outside the wall of the Vatican. A few days after, I received 800 hours of footage which were part of this journey of the Pope. My editor spent six months watching this footage. He did the dirty job, and he came to me 200 hours of footage. That's where we started the whole thing.
Because so much of the film is constructed from archival footage — which is very different from your other films — how did that change your approach as a director?
It was complicated. At the beginning, I had to have a huge step towards, let me say, humility — to see something that is not yours and somehow make it part of your own narration. A big challenge in this film was trying to find material that was more cinematic. The first edit I did was a very free edit. In the first edit, the film was starting in Iraq and ended in Lampedusa and there was no chronological structure in the film. There was no idea of borders. The film had an almost impressionistic structure. And then the war started in Ukraine. And I did my first trip with him in Malta. There, the Pope confronted the reality of the war, saying very strong things about the army, about the fighting, about all the consequences of war. When I edited that part — which is still the end of the film — at that point, the structure didn't make any more sense. The history devoured all my footage to there, and I was completely lost at that point. I said, 'Well, what do we do now?'
After a couple of days of thinking, in between depression and wanting to give up the project, I told my editor, 'I think there's only one way out. Let's edit everything following a chronological structure.' We start from Lampedusa, and we arrived to the trip in Malta and to the war. And I remember when I was watching the material, after the trip in Cuba, he was talking to [Patriarch] Kirill about the Donbas war. And he said, 'If we don't take care of this war now, this war is going to take us all in in a few years.' And that's unfortunately what's happening right now. Somehow this Pope has a view on the future.
I'm not a believer — I'm not a Catholic — so for me, it was very important not having this film a secular approach. And that's what I wanted to follow. I wanted to follow a political aspect of this Pope. I wanted this film to be a map of the human condition. We watch the Pope. The Pope is watching the war. We're watching the war, watching the Pope. And all this has to create a map which is, for me, the map of the human condition. That's what is important to me in this film.
Whenever you make a documentary, you need to gain the trust of the subject, to some degree. You interfaced with the Vatican and with the Pope himself in the process of making this. Did you feel a sense of needing to prove yourself or your intentions to them?
No, because I wanted to keep my independence doing this film. I didn't want the film to be produced by the Vatican. I wanted to keep a total freedom on making this film. But I definitely had a big moment of trust at the beginning when they gave me 800 hours of footage. And then at the end, when I was editing the film for Venice, I showed to them a version of the film and they said, 'For the first time, we are seeing this Pope in a different way. We are used to being there constantly, but we are not used to this element of synthesis that has the film.'
The big challenge of this film was to transform this 800 hours of footage in 80 minutes. I didn't want to make a thesis film. I don't want to demonstrate anything in the film. If there's 100 people watching the film, I want them to have 100 different ideas of the film. This is my challenge always when I work. I didn't want to make it feel that was theological or ideological. I said, 'How is it possible to make a portrait of the most important religious person in this world without being theological, without being ideological by having this secular approach on this?' And the fact probably that I didn't know so much about the church and about that world gave me an immense freedom on that — to be free, to listen to my own private intuition that I was embracing with this Pope. And I think this is a very revolutionary Pope. That's why he's a lonely man. At the end of the film, you have a sense of loneliness of this Pope. He tried to change a lot inside the church. He tried to change a lot in our world by giving this constant sign of awareness that we are losing constantly. And at the end of the film, there's a Pope that is alone. There is a sense of loneliness in the film, which is our loneliness also in this moment. We are not living in the best moment in this planet. It's a shaky world.
You've said that making this movie was like 'chipping away at a block of stone to find the figure within.' Coming out of the experience of making the film, how has your own perception of the Pope changed?
I met the Pope three days ago. We were invited to a private meeting at the Vatican, my producer, my editor, me. Like, eight people of the production. And it was a wonderful, very warm meeting. It was a really fantastic 20 minutes. And before he left, he said, 'Risk. Always risk. Be courageous, and risk. We are surrounded by too many conservators in this world.' Those were the words that he said before leaving the room. Risk. Be courageous, and risk. Those words, I'm going to carry with me.
Do you know, has he seen the film?
No. We gave him a DVD there, and he opened it. He saw. It was in a very beautiful box and he touched it almost like it was a relic. I said, 'I know that you will never watch the movie.' And he smiled, because people around him, they said that he never watches things that he's protagonist of. He considers that an act of vanity, to watch himself on a movie. I'm sure he will not watch the film, but I know he knows about this film. And this film is my personal point of view of the Pope. If you had 100 filmmakers with 800 hours of footage, they would make 100 different films, I hope. But the film is traveling and it's bringing the voice of the Pope around the world. This is what is important for me, and I think he knows that.
It's been 30 years since you debuted with Boatman. Across the decades, in what ways have you seen documentary as a medium or as an art form change?
For me, in all these years, my big challenge was always to break that thin line between documentary and fiction, and always trying to bring the idea of cinema inside the documentary. This was always, and still is, the challenge of my work. And I was lucky enough twice in Venice and in Berlin when I won the Golden Lion and the Golden Bear. It was already an achievement to be there with a documentary, and then, winning as the Best Film was a huge achievement. I had the chance twice to represent Italy [as the Best International Feature Film submission] at the Oscars with Notturno and with Fuocoammare. In a way, that idea of breaking up this thin line between documentary and fiction is something I always carry on from Boatman up to now, and to my new film that I'm doing.
For me, what is important in my work is not the word documentary or fiction, but true or false. This element of being truthful. And what is important for me is also the idea of a point of view in documentary — a point of view of an author, of the director, of someone — and I'm a bit afraid that we're losing this element of authorship. For me, the challenge is always to be experimental, to find a new language, to find a new way of narrating, to find a new way of telling a story — and that's a point of view of an author, which I hope we are not going to lose.
Laura Poitras's All the Beauty and the Bloodshed became the second documentary to win the Golden Lion last year. [Rosi's 2013 documentary, Sacro GRA, was the first.] In her acceptance speech, she shared a similar sentiment — that documentary is cinema. What did that win mean to you?
I love a lot of her work, and she's an author. She has a very strong point of view and that's what is important. A documentary [Nicolas Philibert's Sur l'Adamant] also won the Berlin Film Festival this year. So, for the second time, that happened in Berlin and in Venice, and I was extremely, extremely pleased. And I wish this could happen more and more from the director of festival to have that courage to put the documentary within competition. And the more authors there are that they do this kind of work, the more we can have these things growing. This part of bringing cinema into documentary making, the fact that documentary is cinema, it's a narrative, has the same strength of cinema.
If breaking down the barriers between documentary and narrative film remains the big challenge of your filmmaking, what continues to inspire you?
I don't know. I'm in a moment of crisis on that. Everything I've done since Boatman, I always say, 'This is my last film.' Sometimes it's a bit harsh the way I work. It is a full immersion of something. I spent three years in the Middle East, never going home. Every time I work on a film, I spend two, three years in the place. That becomes my house. And at the end, you feel like you lose so much around you. I'm almost 60 and I'm looking back like, 'What did I do in my life? I made eight films, nine films? Where is the rest?' My life seems to have the rhythm of my film. What's happening between, I don't remember at all — except I have a wonderful daughter. But I don't remember how I spent these 40 years of life except making these nine movies.
I'm in a moment of a bit of crisis. I don't even know how to read this world anymore. It's difficult now. It's difficult to understand where you want to put your camera and why to say that story. Before, I thought that making films could change the world. When I say, if even three people can change their point of view, it's important. What's your position? Fire at Sea starts with a radar going around and the voice of the Coast Guard says, 'What's your position? What's your position?' These people are drowning and saying, 'Help! Help! Please, help!' 'What's your position? What's your position?' So, for me, that word — what's your position — is something that I ask constantly to the audience. What's your position? What's our position? Somehow, this film of the Pope is the tribute to someone that wants to change something in this world. But in order to do that, we have to know what's our position. What's my position towards this world? What's my position toward the climate? What's my position towards these big issues that somehow are consuming us in this moment?
You are reaching the end of the journey on this film—
I thought you were saying the end of my journey! [Laughs]
No, no, no, no, no. Hopefully not.
No. Thank you.
The journey on this film is coming to an end, which you have dedicated more than a year of your life to. Have you found yourself saying of In Viaggio, 'This is my last film'?
I'm working now on a new project, and I said, 'That's it. After this, I don't want to make any more films because it's too much.' I was lucky because, before starting this film, I already started another film. And then, I interrupted that because of the Pope film, but now I'm going back. And I know now you're going to ask me what it's about or where are you shooting? I'm shooting this film in Italy and it is about stratification. It's about time and stratification of time. In two words, that's what my new film is about.
You say you're in crisis, but it seems like you can still find your position in the world.
But after this, that's it! No more.