Review: ‘Francesco,’ a strictly by-the-numbers take on Pope Francis and a world in crisis

Sister Norma Pimentel meets Pope Francis in the documentary "Francesco."
(Photographic Service L’Osservatore Romano/Discovery+)

Given the reach of Catholicism, with more than a billion believers worldwide, it’s safe to say Pope Francis is the most recognizable religious figure on the planet. An in-depth deconstruction of such spiritual and diplomatic responsibility in our tumultuous present, considering the flaws and contradictions of his mortal condition, would render an absorbing film.

Yet that’s not what Oscar-nominated director Evgeny Afineevsky (“Winter on Fire: Ukraine’s Fight for Freedom”) does with “Francesco,” a documentary structured like a pedagogic, Vatican-approved checklist of natural catastrophes, humanitarian crises and geopolitical conflicts His Holiness has pontificated on.

This globe-throttling overview, which opens with his thoughts on the ongoing pandemic and its relation to climate change, covers Trump’s under-construction wall on the U.S.-Mexico border, Myanmar and the Rohingya genocide, Lampedusa’s migrant emergency, and war zones galore to reaffirm the current pope’s devotion to the poor and his bridge-building philosophy.

Each topic is featured for a few minutes before the filmmaker diverts attention to the next calamity in need of awareness. Before the one-hour mark, the format turns tiresome. Homosexuality as it relates to the faith, a subject that recently made headlines, gets a brief non-confrontational passage involving a same-sex couple who met with the leader personally. No further discussion arises.

The repetitive factual focus and emotional superficiality of “Francesco,” built mostly from official footage of public appearances and Pope Francis’ tweets to show his attunement to social media, come likely by virtue of being destined for the Discovery Channel’s new streaming service, Discovery+. The sole narrative thread granted substantial screen time deals with child sexual abuse committed within the church and is anchored on Chilean survivors.

Speakers include the pope’s official biographers and those who were always in his camp or who changed their minds about the charismatic Argentine. Pushback is nonexistent since the intention was never exposing institutional ills but assembling a favorable public relations movie.

With Fernando Meirelles’ “The Two Popes,” a quasi-biopic centered on Pope Francis’ ascent to the position, and Wim Wenders’ nuanced nonfiction look, “Pope Francis: A Man of His Word” already in existence, Afineevsky’s by-the-numbers, for-hire production feels unnecessary. Even if one can’t argue with its distilled message of loving thy neighbor, “Francesco” just serves to remind us of all the horrors unfolding simultaneously.


In Italian, English and Spanish with English subtitles

Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 56 minutes

Playing: Starts March 26, Laemmle Virtual Cinema; available March 28 on Discovery+