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His Holiness moves throughout “In Viaggio: The Travels of Pope Francis” by helicopter, plane, truck, and Popemobile. A crowd always follows, making for the articulate public speaking opportunities that populate this movie. But the documentary is pushed mostly by a maudlin reverence from director Gianfranco Rosi, whose collaging approach does not produce the meditative experience it desires.
The opening text of Rosi’s film clues us in on how the footage here is largely compiled from archival material. That detail becomes known as the film goes from one major papal visit to the other, using footage from his public speeches, sometimes letting them play out for long periods of time. For however valuable his words are—“Dignity is contagious”; “War is madness”; “Together, we must say no to hatred”—their handling here puts them at the center of underwhelming set-pieces. It's valuable food-for-thought from one of the world’s most revered public figures, but the doc's eloquence is too often is limited to just that.
“In Viaggio” becomes a world tour of humanitarian crises without a larger narrative plan. Its themes are whatever subject matter Pope Francis is talking about in the current clip; taking these scenes all together, it makes a far less poignant statement. The film hops between different visits and years—from Chile in 2018 to Kenya in 2015 to Israel in 2014—depicting how Pope Francis is up close with star-struck locals, while a background is filled with adoring fans. It can be powerful to witness the calming power Pope Francis has, as he embodies and preaches non-denominational peace. We are watching these people experience a day they will never forget.
But over time, what should be a mediative experience becomes numbing, especially as inserted scenes of historical suffering are told within a wonky rhythm. Rosi shows us a place like Japan in 2019 and then cuts back to black-and-white footage after devastation from the Atom Bomb. It is harrowing footage on its own that feels glanced over in the observe-and-go way of this documentary, which only has its holiest intentions to recommend it.
Rosi does not accompany these passages with music, which plays out more like a statement on his desire not to impede on the material. We also cannot tell what footage he shot (though a few wide shots suggest his eye), which makes his overall POV even more of a mystery aside from what he and his editing team choose to emphasize. Rosi's bigger flourishes are in how he overlays the Pope’s words from a speech with footage of him meeting his people, as we see when he meets imprisoned men and women in Mexico, while his voiceover speaks poetically against incarceration. But for most of its 82-minute run-time, it’s as if the film is just jumping between news clips of speeches, accompanied by the silence of someone assembling a holy YouTube playlist.
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