Gianfranco Rosi on Having the Blessing of the Pope to Make “In Viaggio”

Mere moments into “In Viaggio,” Gianfranco Rosi returns to Lampedusa, the island off the coast of Sicily where first he set up cameras in the early part of the 2010s to film “Fire at Sea,” observing how the small Italian community became a flashpoint for the ongoing migrant crisis as those fleeing political instability risked life and limb for even the slightest promise of a safe haven. The choppiness of the waters faced by incoming refugees is mirrored in the patchy transmission from port authority as one can hear another boat attempting to make an arrival, with the sad reality setting in that they may not be welcome even if they make it to dry land. As murky a situation as it appears under the cloak of night, the frenzied communication illuminates the complex moral quandaries of our times as well as how the priority of human life still can supersede all other considerations.

What also emerges from the fraught scene is how critical the act of broadcast can be, even if it seems as if one is shouting into the void, which is where Rosi would seem to find Pope Francis in his latest film chronicles nearly a decade of travel across 53 countries, preaching a message of peace to a world that may no longer be open to hearing it. While Rosi accompanied the Pope on trips to Canada and Malta post-pandemic, the filmmaker used much of the time in lockdown combing through archival material to create a fascinating portrait of the current supreme pontiff, joining him on planes, helicopters and even the back of the Popemobile to visit some of the most sensitive spots in the world.

Whether it’s touching down in the Philippines shortly after the devastation of Typhoon Yolanda to offer comfort to survivors or crossing the border from Armenia into Turkey where the wounds of an unacknowledged genocide still fester, Rosi is able to illustrate how the Pope isn’t only engaging in the moment with those on the ground, but their entire history, the power of his position still clearly meaningful as people kneel down before him but his efficacy in question when his simple desire to spread peace can seem as an unsatisfactory response to decades and often centuries of built up tension in the environments he’s walking into.

Rosi, who usually will embed in a location for long periods of time in order to create a sense of place where the history gracefully rises to the surface, somehow manages to reverse-engineer his methodology for an 80-minute travelogue that is as impressive in depth and scope as any of his previous works, with the Pope’s travels pulling together long-running themes of displacement and adaptability that have been a part of his films from “Below Sea Level,” where people made a life for themselves on the fringes of the California desert, to “Notturno,” in which those unsettled by war in the Middle East continue to find their footing. Following the film’s premiere at the Venice Film Festival and a global release as robust as the Pope’s itinerary, “In Viaggio” is now making its way to America and the director graciously took the time to talk about the transition from observational filmmaking to telling a story from footage he had no hand in capturing, how the film was influenced by the ongoing war in Ukraine and tracking a Pope he found to be ahead of the curve.

How did this come about?

It started like all my work with an encounter, though this time the encounter was with the Pope. [laughs] Ten years ago, after I did “Fire At Sea,” about the migrants arriving from all kind of horrible adventures to this little island of Lampedusa, the Pope made his first trip [there] after he became Pope and when I finished the film, the Pope saw it and he invited us to a private encounter in the Vatican. Then 10 years later, I had just finished “Notturno” and I had an interview with L’Osservatore Romano, the newspaper of the Vatican and the Pope read this article before leaving for Iraq and when they came back, they called me and they asked me to watch this footage and [asked] if there was some kind of possibility to work together with some of my footage and their own footage.

That was very hard for me to enter [when] the footage that I was watching was shot for live television, so the cinematic language was completely different, but in that moment, I realized I should ask how many trips did the Pope [make] in the nine years of his pontificate. There were 34 trips, and I immediately imagined [seeing] this Pope outside the wall of the Vatican, traveling the world and meeting heads of state and [various] encounters would be a great movie about the journey of the Pope in these 10 years. Then I had access to more than 800 hours from the Vatican, and with my editor Fabrizio Federico, who did incredible work of watching footage, we selected 200 hours [to cull from] and within these 200 hours, we worked on a possible structure and a possible feel, which is incredible thinking that this film is [now] only 80 minutes. This was the big challenge of making this film.

When we spoke for “Fire at Sea,” you alluded to the fact that the editing process in your films is usually short, given how much time you spend in the locations you film in and knowing exactly what you want to get before capturing it in camera. A largely archival film would seem to require the complete opposite – was it different approaching a story this way?

It was because for the first time I lived this movie as an observer, except I did three trips, one in Malta and one in Canada, [where it] was very important for me to be there, and then I went to Africa because I wanted to keep following the Pope in his new journey and [keep] it open-ended, so at the end of the film, you have this curtain moving and the challenge of keeping this film open was the biggest dream of this film. The film starts with the word dream – [the Pope says] “Don’t lose the ability of dream,” and the biggest dream of this Pope is peace, so I wanted the film to arrive, hopefully, to that moment when the Pope would be able to go to Kiev and to Moscow and somehow embrace the world with peace and I’m waiting for that moment to happen. That’s why I kept the film open.

But of course, [the film] changed a lot. Sometimes when I was in Venice for the first time, I thought when I lived in all my film – for two or three years immersed in the situation which is not mine, I had so many anecdotes to tell, and for the first time in this film, I have zero anecdotes [of my own], except the encounter with the Pope. And I met the Pope again three days ago in the Vatican and he was thanking us for this movie, so that was a great moment. But when I was making this film, I was in my studio in Rome, mostly working on the editing.

I loved how you kick off the film with the satellite because it not only kicks off an immediate conversation about the migrant crisis when one ship is communicating to another about the people onboard, but the larger theme of the Pope trying to get his message out in turbulent times. Was it obvious to find that opening note?

Yeah, in fact, there is a moment where the Pope says, “Good morning, you all” and then there’s a moment of silence and the voice arrives after a few seconds and I thought, somehow that was a metaphor of this Pope. This Pope is much ahead of us — he see things before us. And there is a very clear moment in the film when he’s speaking, after he meets Kiril [the Patriarch of Moscow in 2014 and he’s talking about war. When I was editing, I didn’t know which war he was talking about, but he was talking about Donbass. I realized later and he said, “2014, if we don’t take care of this world now, this world is going to compromise all of us.” So this was the six years [before the war in Ukraine].

And I am not a Catholic or a Christian, I’m not a believer. But the fascination I have is the idea of time. For the church, 50 years is nothing. 850 years is nothing. There’d been 850 years and they didn’t talk with the Russian Orthodox Church and then there was this embrace with Kirill. Now again, there’s a split there with Kirill. There’s no communication left anymore. And by watching the film, [you see] so many parts of history are passing by us and with the reflection of time, [you see] this chronological essence, and how much things are changing constantly, but somehow the film becomes like a pillar — a reference of history, which is extremely strong, I wanted to create a portrait of the human condition through the eyes of this Pope. This for me, what is important is that there is this sense of suspension in the film that I wanted to leave between history, the world right now, and the world that still has to come.

What was it like actually accompanying the Pope to film after you had gone through at least some of this footage to put the film together?

In Canada, I was very lucky. That made a huge difference for me to be there and it helped me to create a structure while I was there and filming. If you remember, the film starts with a shot that is completely blurry and out of focus when the Pope is giving the speech of forgiveness and I was there with probably 800 journalists all over the world. There were thousands of people in this stadium and we had like a platform where everybody was there with their own camera and filming, and it was the first time that I’m obliged to have a position and be there and not move. For me, the truth in my work comes by choosing the right frame, the right angle, the right distance and in this case, I couldn’t do that. I had one position. I had to stick there long lens. And I look around. Each of us had the same exact frame there, so I said, “How do I film this in a different way?”

A few hours before I encountered these pictures of the Native population [from] the past where you can really capture the tragedy that went through, so I had this picture in my mind and [when] the Pope was asking for forgiveness, I wanted to enter into his mind, so I decided to put everything out of focus [in] that scene because for me it was almost like if I edited this as if this was happening still in his mind — this act of being there never happened — this forgiveness was not accepted, which is somehow unfortunately true. Not everybody accepted this, the Pope asking for forgiveness in the name of the Church. So there was a very strong sense of humility [when] this is a Pope that is able to ask forgiveness for himself and for the Church and we have in the film the moment where [the Pope] says, “I made a mistake. I asked for proof. How dare did I ask for proof from these people that they suffer? I made a huge mistake there.” It’s enormous, a pope that is able to ask publicly forgiveness for the mistake and being there, physically present, it changed my way of filming. But there were very few moments like that in the field where I was able to be there.

Was there something you could hold onto as a through line?

Most of the time I had to refer myself to a very strong sense of subtraction, of not giving too much information. Sometimes I kept a scene completely silent. When he met with [Ayatollah] Al-Sistani in Iraq, they met for a long time and there was no footage of that, but that moment of silence that is there between the two of them [when they sat down for a photo opp], it speaks much more than any words. Also when he meets with [Turkish President] Recep Tayyip] Erdogan, after he recognized for the first time the genocide was made by the Turkish government in Armenia, that created a very shaky moment between the two, so when he met with Erdogan, he was somehow obliged to salute to the soldiers. And he’s completely against armies and things, and in that moment, he has to, so it’s like a punishment that he had to go through, so when he meets with Erdogan, that was the most revealing moment — to show the silence and embarrassment between the two of them. It spoke more than any kind of public speech there, so these were always challenging to edit and to find the right element of narration.

I always felt that the silence is a big element of this Pope. When he was elected 10 years ago, he embraced the fold by asking, “Pray for me in silence.” So the moments I saw in the footage and also when I was able to be there [when] he goes in a very deep state of meditation, it feels almost that he’s recharging from this duty that he has, and I wanted to use many of these silence here. In Malta, [when] I was able to film when he was in this cave, praying alone there, we’re only two cameramen there, and I was very close to him, so to be able to film him in this meditation, which happens after the speech that he gave on the war, was a very strong moment because we see him standing up in a very painful way, almost shaking as he walks and reaches the door by himself. You feel in that moment the solitude of this Pope and the time that passed by in these 10 years, [with] all the weight that he had to carry.

I witnessed the remarkable energy that this Pope has and [now] he’s in pain and in a wheelchair. It’s very difficult for him to walk, his health is not at the best, and yet he doesn’t stop. He always said being a Pope means also be able to carry physically and mentally this mission and in the moment [in Malta], “I don’t have that energy and that strength anymore, I will give up,” so there’s always the threat of him abandoning his role and who knows what’s going to happen, but I was able to feel myself and keep the camera there very steady and leaving out the focus was very important. Somehow it creates a strong pattern to the film and gives that sense of solitude at the end of the film before the prayer that he does at the end against war.

What’s it been like getting this film out into the world?

When I finished the film for Venice, there was still an imminent hope for me that this peace [between Russia and Ukraine] was going to happen soon. Unfortunately, one year passed and there is no peace, but the film starts with the word of the Pope saying, “Dream. Don’t forget, don’t lose the beat of dreaming” and the biggest dream of this Pope is peace, so I wanted the film to follow him into this moment and then hopefully [for] the moment to happen [where there is] peace between Russia and Ukraine and I want this film to be a witness of that moment.

“In Viaggio” opens on March 31st in Los Angeles at the Monica Film Center and in New York at the Quad Cinema and will be available on demand and on digital.

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