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A pope observed but not revealed

The Italian documentary In Viaggio is a brilliantly made film that, in the end, is a testament to our modern culture’s idea of who Pope Francis is.


Distribution Service: Theatrical (Limited)
MPAA Rating, Not rated at the time of this review
USCCB Rating,  Not rated at the time of this review
Reel Rating: 2.5 out of 5 reels

In Viaggio, an Italian documentary, is a brilliantly made—but often lacking—film that follows Pope Francis through the various apostolic journeys of his first nine years. The movie is shot in the style of cinéma vérité, which is a documentary format that puts a premium on as little interference with its subject as possible.


As the Holy Father travels from country to country, one gets the impression of a man whose time “is nearer now than when we first believed,” bringing hope with feverish intensity to as many places as possible.

The specifics of this “hope,” however, are frustratingly vague and deprived of almost any obvious Christian content.

The film starts with Francis’ first—and arguably most significant—visit. In early July 2013, just a few months into his pontificate, he went to the Italian island of Lampedusa, an important stop for North African and Middle Eastern migration. He cast out a memorial wreath into the waters to honor the many desperate souls who die on the passage and called for greater compassion towards their plight. He continues onward to Brazil for World Youth Day, to an active war zone in the Central African Republic, to the halls of the US Congress, and beyond.

Like Jesus in the Gospel of Mark, he is constantly on the move, barely stopping to catch his breath. But, unlike Mark’s Gospel, Jesus is not referenced or mentioned.

Mistakes are made and not everyone is happy, but most—dignitaries and ordinary folk alike—are ecstatic to see him, listening intently to his words and even shoving the occasional baby into his face for a quick blessing. While probably not his desire or intention, Francis is treated like a rock star rather than a prophet; my son still has the Pope plushie, sent from my parents, when Francis visited Philadelphia in 2015.

The quotations that Italian-American director Gianfranco Rosi chooses from the pontiff’s speeches are pleasant, but bland. Francis encourages young people to “hope and dream” and tells diplomats to be “fair and humble.” Good feelings abound, but practical solutions are lacking and doctrine doesn’t even make a cameo.

This raises the question of the purpose of the papacy in general and this pope specifically. According to Rosi, Francis appears to be just another global activist. Yet, for centuries, bishops led their dioceses with faith without ever meeting the Holy Father. In the 1960s, Pope St. Paul VI earned the nickname “the Pilgrim Pope” for traveling more than any other in history, a grand total of nine apostolic journeys in two decades. Pope Francis could do that in six months.

And as much as I love Pope St. John Paul the Great, he did set a precedent as a globe-trotting spiritual figure, which has the potential to detract from his duties as shepherd of the Catholic fold.

Again, In Viaggio is unquestionably a piece of remarkable cinematic craftsmanship. And cinéma vérité is a such a refreshing take on the genre. Currently, the trend is to put the filmmaker, rather than the subject, front and center. This started with Michael Moore’s classic Roger & Me and reached its zenith with Morgan Spurlock’s Super Size Me. It can be funny and insightful, but often descends into egoism.

This is not to say that In Viaggio doesn’t have a perspective. Rosi carefully selects which images to show and carefully directs how they are edited into a narrative. Yet this story arises organically from the imagery rather than being pushed directly in the audience’s face.

Reaching the end of an otherwise enjoyable experience, I was disturbed by a significant oversight, already noted. In an 82-minute-long film, in which the Bishop of Rome appears in every scene, the name “Jesus Christ” is not mentioned once. Yes, this is certainly due to Rosi’s editing rather Francis’ ministry. But the Holy Father rarely does anything to break this interpretation.

As such, In Viaggio is a revealing testament to our modern culture’s idea of Pope Francis, but does little to reveal the man himself.

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About Nick Olszyk 206 Articles
Nick Olszyk teaches theology at Marist Catholic High School in Eugene, Oregon. He was raised on bad science fiction movies, jelly beans, and TV shows that make fun of bad science fiction movies. Visit him online and listen to his podcast at "Catholic Cinema Crusade".


  1. We read that in the nine-year portrayal, “the name “Jesus Christ” is not mentioned once.”
    Likewise, in the vademecum (guidelines) for a synodal Church. While the term “Christian” shows up nine times (as an adjective), the incarnate “Jesus Christ” (more than an adjective!) again shows up not even once!

    This disappearing act (artful special effects!) resonates well with the pulp fiction graffiti (another artform!) emanating from der Synodale Weg, where “Jesus Christ,” again, is totally absent. And, then, there’s the fact that the traveling Pope Francis has not yet visited Germany…

    And, why should he? For in Germany he would discover his “inverted pyramid” church…

    And, considering yet another artform (epic poetry), the only other place one finds an inverted pyramid is in Dante’s Inferno–as the seven-layered architecture of Hell! Each layer consisting of one of the seven Deadly Sins—all of them well-represented (votes!) in the the cross-dressed, Bats-sing “Church that is Catholic, but in a different way.”

  2. Nick Olszyk offers an intriguing mystery, Who is he? “But the Holy Father rarely does anything to break this interpretation” (Olszyk).
    A question of Francis’ identity, significantly couched in his deficient witness to the person Jesus of Nazareth. Olszyk inadvertently [?] answers his question. That is the purpose of Director Rosi’s editing. “Just another global activist”. A pontificate of secular radical inclusion.

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