EXCLUSIVE: Evgeny Afineevsky had no idea what to expect when he was given unprecedented access to Pope Francis.
The Oscar and Emmy-nominated film director revealed that no issue was off-limits when it came time to interview the 84-year-old for his new documentary "Francesco." The film examines how the religious figure has worked to tackle issues such as immigration, climate change and even the abuse allegations faced by the Catholic Church.
"Despite being Pope Francis, he’s still close to the people around him and wants to be a man of the people," Afineevsky told Fox News. "That’s the Jesuit in him, the Jesuit education, the Jesuit belief. He said to me when I started this movie, ‘Evgeny, I don’t want to be an actor. I rather go to the corners of the world and help people than be in front of the camera.’ And that’s him. That’s the amazing person I tried to bring into this film. We can all learn something good from him."
During filming, Afineevsky witnessed Francis’s modest life in Casa Santa Maria, the Vatican City guesthouse, as opposed to the more lavish papal apartments in the Apostolic Palace.
"He’s not trying to live in the Apostolic Palace behind so many guards," Afineevsky explained. "He wanted to live humbly in a guest house of the Vatican. The Santa Maria is a very modest, small apartment. He’s not driving a luxury car. He wants to be close to the people. He emphasized that during our time filming. He was close to the people when he was Cardinal Bergoglio on the streets of Buenos Aires. And despite being pope, he hasn’t changed."
One of the surprising aspects of "Francesco" is the sit-down with Juan Carlos Cruz, who claimed he was sexually abused as a boy in Chile by a Catholic priest. In the film, Cruz saluted Pope Francis for rethinking his response to the scandal. Francis initially defended some prelates accused of sexual misdeeds, Deadline.com reported. However, the outlet noted he eventually took strong action against some alleged abusers.
Decades of sex abuse scandals in many countries, including allegations that church officials covered up the wrongdoing of priests, have eroded the Catholic Church’s credibility among the faithful.
"Pope Francis wrote a letter to the world apologizing, admitting his mistake and that was unheard of," Cruz told the outlet. "No other pope had done that. This is a man that recognizes his mistakes and a man that is not ashamed to recognize an error and to mend it and to admit that he has made a mistake and fix it."
In March of this year, the Vatican announced that Cruz is the latest member of the Pontifical Commission for the Protection of Minors. Cruz and other survivors were invited by the pope personally in 2018 to discuss their cases with him.
Afineevsky said he was particularly inspired by Francis’ determination to raise awareness on climate change and its impact on our environment.
"I wanted to bring his actions to inspire people to do something good, to save our world so we can build a safe path for our future, especially in these days of the pandemic," Afineevsky explained. "I think the pandemic has made us take a moment of pause and rethink what we have done before, all the disasters we created and how we can make it different. It’s not too late for us to build a safer future. Pope Francis believes that in loving our planet, we can unite and show our love for humanity, too."
Afineevsky admitted he was impressed by how personable Pope Francis was when it came time to film.
"The world sees him as this spiritual leader," he said. "But when you actually sit down with him and talk with him, it’s like talking to a relative. It felt like talking to that family member who’s cheerful, but also wants to give you advice and hear what you have to say. It really feels like talking to your father who wants to teach you something. He listens carefully, he shares his ideas. He never makes you feel like he’s superior to you. I felt so comfortable sitting next to him because he really made me feel like an equal."
Afineevsky said he doesn’t see "Francesco" as a religious film, but more as a call to action for those in need of hope in their lives.
"His last sentence in the movie is we need change that will unite us all," said Afineevsky. "I think that’s the message of this film. That we are all equal. We need to listen to each other’s stories and unite. Throughout his journeys, Pope Francis would always say, ‘We’re a big family. Let’s stop trashing our home the Earth because it is destroying it and that is where we live.’ I think his purpose in life is to build a bridge. He wants to spread love. And we can certainly use that today."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.