On Easter Monday I said goodbye to my Berlin ASF friends and was left to my own devices. Wandering by Rosenheimer Platz, I spotted a new film title in one of Munich's many independent cinemas - even though you rarely get a film ticket for less than €6.50, there's a great range of films to see. Francesco und der Papst (Francesco and the Pope) looked, from the posters, like a glorified "Let's look around the Vatican" documentary turned into a feature film, and in some ways it turned out as such. The flyer was full of quotes from German Bishops, one from Peter Seewald, whose interview with the Pope last year caused controversy, and the film seemed to be supported by the Vatican. From what I gathered it was a film about a choir boy who meets the Pope, so with the buzz of Easter still about me I decided to give it a go.
In one sense, I was right. To most people it will look like an attempt to show a few bits of private footage of the Pope with his faithful secretary Msgr "Gorgeous" Georg Gänswein. Theres a shot of him watching what appears to be an HDTV demo screensaver, then eating with a Dominican, walking through the Vatican Gardens with a body warmer and slippers among other clips of the Pope's official visits, yet this isn't enough to make a film. This is where the story of Francesco comes in.
Francesco is a boy chorister with the Sistine Chapel Choir. He loves to sing, and has a profound grasp of the responsibility he has as a member of the choir that sings for papal liturgies. His home life can be as stressful as his life at the Choir's school; his brothers subject him to the usual rough play, he has little time for homework and, hardest of all, he lives in a single parent family. His father arrives at the end, but it is clear this is a broken home and his mother finds it hard to cope.
We are treated to his own observations on the Vatican and its seemingly timeless world, and his childlike views are a real treat, as well as being extremely timely. For example, we see the opening of the Synod of African Bishops with an African choir and band, to which Francesco says, "I wish they were here every week; then at least we would have more fun at Mass!". Given the fact that this film must have been shown to (and approved by) the Holy Father at some point means this irreverent take on the modern church is actually far more daring than you might think a Vatican film possible.
Finally Francesco's moment comes and he is asked to sing for the Pope. The moment comes, he sings beautifully and clearly and the two finally meet, Francesco and Benedict in a moment that seems to last an age. The final note is sung, Benedict raises a warm smile and is the first to clap the boy's performance and gets up to greet him.
In any other film it would be horrible that I gave away the last moments then, but that's not what this film is about. Besides, it's all in the trailer below. It is, similar I suppose to Into Great Silence, a meditative film, but about the Church in the world rather than the microcosm of the monastery. You watch it knowing that all will turn out OK, but you see how these two lives affect each other, not only on Francesco's side but on Pope Benedict's responsibility as head of a changing Church. The plot begins to lose its importance as you are gripped by this childlike look at a Church structure that has to many people lost its innocence. That, and how much the Pope smiles. He smiles a lot.
In typical Vatican style (Yesterday's technology, tomorrow!), this excellent film is only on limited release in Germany, and it doesn't look like there's been much press coverage about it at all beyond the usual diocesan newspapers. What a shame. If you do have the chance to see it, go, if only to see something completely different.