‘Francesco’ Review: The Pope, Up Close, but Not That Close

Discovery+ is billing “Francesco,” a portrait of Pope Francis, as “an unprecedented look at the man behind the cloth.” But while the filmmakers were able to talk to Pope Francis in person, a large portion of the documentary comes from a layer out. The director, Evgeny Afineevsky, includes ample footage of the pope’s public appearances, images of his tweets and interviews with multiple people identified as “longtime friend of Pope Francis.”

This approach, focusing on the message and not the messenger, seems consistent with Francis’s modesty, and the film plays like a channel for spreading his ideas on the environment, refugees and religious coexistence. All of that is to the good. But judged strictly as a movie, “Francesco” comes across as shapeless and secondhand — a missed opportunity to present a closer look at the daily work of being pope and perhaps to demystify elements of the papacy.

We learn, for instance, that when Francis visited Myanmar in 2017, he did not refer by name to the Rohingya, the Muslim ethnic group persecuted within the country, adhering to the policy of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s government not to use the word (although he did allude to the group, and a Rohingya refugee who met him in Bangladesh says the pope later asked for forgiveness). How are such inherently political decisions made? “Francesco” does not explain.

The film is not always glowing. Juan Carlos Cruz, a victim of abuse by a priest in Chile, discusses how hard it was to see the pope dismiss as “slander” accusations that a bishop had covered up the abuse. But the film uses this to illustrate how Francis grew. He met with Cruz and ultimately defrocked the priest.

Not rated. In English, Spanish, Italian, Armenian and French with subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 56 minutes. Watch on Discovery+.

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