VATICAN CITY – “Beyond the Sun,” a simple but effective English-language children’s adventure film in which Pope Francis plays himself, premiered Wednesday at the Vatican, signaling a clear attempt by the pontiff and his communications advisors to use movies as a medium to spread the Catholic message to the young.
The pic, in which Francis appears for roughly six minutes, marks the first time that a pope has appeared in a motion picture.
Shot in Patagonia and Vatican City, “Beyond the Sun” is about five kids who run away from home after catechism class and take to the woods to look for Jesus in a hilltop sanctuary. The multi-ethnic cast features child actors Aiden Cumming-Teicher, Cory Gruter-Andrew, Emma Duke, Kyle Breitkopf, and Sebastiάn Alexander Chou.
Co-directed by Graciela Rodriguez (pictured), an Argentine psychiatrist whose rapport with Francis goes back a long way, and Charlie Mainardi, who has shot commercials for Coca Cola, the pic screened for an audience of Vatican and Italian officials in the 50-seat Vatican Cinematheque. Martin Scorsese’s “Silence” premiered late last year in the same intimate setting.
The pope was expected but did not attend the screening because of the Mexico earthquake, according to producer Andrea Iervolino.
Rodriguez, who collaborated with Francis on social work projects when the pope was Jose Maria Bergoglio, Archbishop of Buenos Aires, said the film stems from his desire to communicate the message of Jesus to children through film.
“Pope Francis always says that he has to reach everybody with his message. He is a very modern person,” she said in an interview with Variety. “He knows that kids see movies and they are very visual,” she added.
Before “Beyond the Sun” went into production, Francis read the script, which Rodriguez wrote with input from Argentine bishop Monsignor Eduardo Garcia who, like her, worked with Bergoglio in Argentina for many years.
“The question I asked him [for the final scene] was: ‘How and where can children talk with Jesus?’” Rodriguez said.
The answer, in short, provided in the film’s unscripted finale in which Pope Francis talks to the kids, is: “By reading the Gospels.”
Iervolino said that setting up the Vatican shoot, including arranging cameras amid extensive security, took a day. “The pope’s part was just one scene and it was great,” he said, adding that it was “done in one take.”
Iervolino and Monika Bacardi, who financed and produced “Beyond the Sun” through their Los Angeles-based Ambi Media Group, are planning a small self-release of the film in the U.S. on Dec. 1 on roughly 150 screens, followed by an North American outing on other platforms, including TV, VOD and DVD, around Easter, Iervolino said.
The film will also get a tiny December theatrical release in Italy via Ambi after launching as special event from the Alice in the City children’s film sidebar of the Rome Film Festival in early November. Several deals are in place with unspecified distributors in other countries.
All proceeds from “Beyond the Sun” will go to Argentine charity El Buon Samaritano.