ROME - After tackling war in Syria, Oscar-nominated Evgeny Afineevsky wanted his next documentary to send a message of hope, so he chose as its subject the only world leader he believes capable of uniting humanity: Pope Francis.
Afineevsky, a Russia-born Jew, depicts Francis as the great connector, and "Francesco", which premiered at the Rome Film Festival on Wednesday, places the pope at the heart of a narrative that casts a wide net over some of the world's most pressing problems.
"The main thread of this movie is more about us as human beings, who are creating disasters every day. And he (the pope) is the one who is connecting us through these threads," Afineevsky, now a U.S. citizen, said in an interview.
Using the coronavirus as a launch pad, the two-hour film starts with footage of a deserted, rain slicked St. Peter's Square on the evening of March 27, when Francis led a surreal and solitary prayer service for relief from the rapidly spreading pandemic.
It then cuts to empty streets the world over to drive home the pope's message that "we are all in the same boat".
Afineevsky was nominated for an Oscar in 2016 for "Winter on Fire", about the popular uprising in Ukraine. After "Cries from Syria", a subsequent film on the civil war there, "brought me to the darkest side of humanity," he felt compelled to produce something uplifting.
"Just like Pope Francis brings attention to the horrible situation that we as humanity have created, I wanted to find hope, light and love and give this hope to people. Through his (the pope's) actions, I found this," he said.
"It's the story of us, and him helping us, understand these things."
The film tackles other topical issues such as the growing rich-poor gap, racism, climate change, sexual abuse, migration, human trafficking, political polarisation and relations between Christians, Moslems and Jews.
The viewer sees them through the pope's eyes, his pronouncements, his writings, his Tweets, his trips, and newspaper headlines. It also features Afineevsky's interviews with Francis and appearances by Catholic Church experts, refugees, sex abuse victims, a homosexual couple, a Holocaust survivor, rabbis and Moslems.
Footage of bombs in Syria, migrant boats sinking in the Mediterranean, typhoons in the Philippines, melting ice caps, the separation of families at the U.S. Mexican border, a refugee camp in Greece, and blacks killed by police in the United States, are interspersed with papal comments.
While positive in its overall evaluation, the film avoids the overt hagiography of documentaries of Francis made by religious groups.
It highlights the fact that he completely misjudged the scale and severity of the Church's sexual abuse crisis, and that he later publicly recognised his mistake and apologised.
"It is beautiful to see a leader in his position, and just a humble human being, who is able to say: 'I am sorry, I am wrong,'" Afineevsky said.