tv series

TV series on Pope Francis skates over his controversial Argentina years

The Netflix series ‘Call Me Francis’ revisits the formative years of Jorge Bergoglio.

Call Me Francis, the four-part fictional miniseries about Pope Francis, began life as an Italian film that had its world premiere at the Vatican in 2016. That is hardly surprising, since the miniseries chooses to paper over many of the accusations that have been hurled at the head of the Catholic Church relating to his time as a priest in Argentina.

The miniseries, currently streaming on Netflix, begins with a young Jorge Bergoglio, played stirringly by Rodrigo de la Sarna, in Buenos Aires in the 1960s. This was perhaps the last uncomplicated time in the future Pope’s life, as he spent carefree evenings with friends and debated whether to commit to a life of bachelorhood. An interesting subplot involves his time as a school teacher of literature during which he invited Jorge Luis Borges to lecture to his students.

Bergoglio was ordained a priest in 1969 and made Provincial, the head of the Jesuits in Buenos Aires, in 1973. The series pays close attention to the aftermath of his ascension as Provincial, a time that coincided with the “Dirty War” unleashed by the military dictatorship under the leadership of General Videla. Numbers vary, but close to 30,000 people “disappeared” in the period between 1974 and 1982. Apart from dissidents and left-wing political figures, the military abducted a motley group of people who it believed were undermining its interests.

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Call Me Francis.

Orlando Yorio and Francisco Jalics, Jesuit priests under the protection of Bergoglio, were suspected by the military of fomenting Marxist ideology among the poor they worked with. The two were kidnapped and tortured in detention before being dropped from helicopters in the outskirts of Buenos Aires. The other story the series focuses on pertains to Esther Careaga, whose daughter disappeared and who happened to be Bergoglio’s boss at the chemical technology company he was employed with before becoming a priest. She was drugged and thrown into the sea.

While the series presents both these incidents, it chooses to give Bergoglio the benefit of the doubt. In the case of the priests, it showcases how Bergoglio tried reasoning with them, in vain, to focus on pastoral work. Its treatment of Esther’s case is more brutal, both in capturing in shocking detail her final journey and in delineating Bergoglio’s inability to do anything to assist her. Yet, the series ultimately presents Bergoglio as a sympathetic figure, even at the cost of authenticity.

In one scene, Bergoglio is shown spotting Esther, after she disappeared, walking in a daze on the streets of Buenos Aires. He calls out to her but she does not respond. He bursts into tears, and the viewer feels a pang of empathy for him. In reality, however, Esther died at sea. Bergoglio refused to name the assailants of his Jesuit protégés in a 2010 testimony on the crimes committed during the Dirty War.

Pope Francis’s silence during a horrific time in his country’s history remains an open wound. Call Me Francis adds little to the conversation except for portraying its protagonist with a benevolence that is perhaps not earned.

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London then and now – As experienced by Indians

While much has changed, the timeless quality of the city endures.

“I found the spirit of the city matching the Bombay spirit. Like Bombay, the city never sleeps and there was no particular time when you couldn’t wander about the town freely and enjoy the local atmosphere”, says CV Manian, a PhD student in Manchester in the ‘80s, who made a trip to London often. London as a city has a timeless quality. The seamless blend of period architecture and steel skyscrapers acts as the metaphor for a city where much has changed, but a lot hasn’t.

The famed Brit ‘stiff upper lip, for example, finds ample validation from those who visited London decades ago. “The people were minding their business, but never showed indifference to a foreigner. They were private in their own way and kept to themselves.” Manian recollects. Aditya Dash remembers an enduring anecdote from his grandmother’s visit to London. “There is the famous family story where she was held up at Heathrow airport. She was carrying zarda (or something like that) for my grandfather and customs wanted to figure out if it was contraband or not.”

However, the city always housed contrasting cultures. During the ‘Swinging ‘60s’ - seen as a precursor to the hippie movement - Shyla Puri’s family had just migrated to London. Her grandfather still remembers the simmering anti-war, pro-peace sentiment. He himself got involved with the hippie movement in small ways. “He would often talk with the youth about what it means to be happy and how you could achieve peace. He wouldn’t go all out, but he would join in on peace parades and attend public talks. Everything was ‘groovy’ he says,” Shyla shares.

‘Groovy’ quite accurately describes the decade that boosted music, art and fashion in a city which was till then known for its post-World-War austerities. S Mohan, a young trainee in London in the ‘60s, reminisces, “The rage was The Beatles of course, and those were also the days of Harry Belafonte and Ella Fitzgerald.” The likes of The Rolling Stones and Pink Floyd were inspiring a cultural revolution in the city. Shyla’s grandfather even remembers London turning punk in the ‘80s, “People walking around with leather jackets, bright-colored hair, mohawks…It was something he would marvel at but did not join in,” Shyla says.

But Shyla, a second-generation Londoner, did join in in the revival of the punk culture in the 21st century. Her Instagram picture of a poster at the AfroPunk Fest 2016 best represents her London, she emphatically insists. The AfroPunk movement is trying to make the Punk culture more racially inclusive and diverse. “My London is multicultural, with an abundance of accents. It’s open, it’s alive,” Shyla says. The tolerance and openness of London is best showcased in the famous Christmas lights at Carnaby Street, a street that has always been popular among members of London’s alternate cultures.

Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)
Christmas lights at Carnaby Street (Source: Roger Green on Wikimedia Commons)

“London is always buzzing with activity. There are always free talks, poetry slams and festivals. A lot of museums are free. London culture, London art, London creativity are kept alive this way. And of course, with the smartphones navigating is easy,” Shyla adds. And she’s onto something. Manian similarly describes his ‘80s rendezvous with London’s culture, “The art museums and places of interest were very illustrative and helpful. I could tour around the place with a road map and the Tube was very convenient.” Mohan, with his wife, too made the most of London’s cultural offerings. “We went to see ‘Swan Lake’ at the Royal Opera House and ‘The Mousetrap’ by Agatha Christie. As an overseas graduate apprentice, I also had the pleasure to visit the House of Lords and take tea on the terrace.”

For the casual stroller along London’s streets today, the city would indeed look quite different from what it would’ve to their grandparents. Soho - once a poor suburb known for its crime and sex industry - is today a fashionable district of upmarket eateries and fashion stores. Most of the big British high street brands have been replaced by large international stores and the London skyline too has changed, with The Shard being the latest and the most impressive addition. In fact, Shyla is quite positive that her grandfather would not recognise most of the city anymore.

Shyla, though, isn’t complaining. She assures that alternate cultures are very much alive in the city. “I’ve seen some underground LGBT clubs, drag clubs, comedy clubs, after midnight dance-offs and empty-warehouse-converted parties. There’s a space for everybody.” London’s cosmopolitan nature remains a huge point of attraction for Indian visitors even today. Aditya is especially impressed by the culinary diversity of London and swears that, “some of the best chicken tikka rolls I have had in my life were in London.” “An array of accents flood the streets. These are the people who make London...LONDON,” says Shyla.

It’s clear that London has changed a lot, but not really all that much. Another aspect of Indians’ London experience that has remained consistent over the past decades is the connectivity of British Airways. With a presence in India for over 90 years, British Airways has been helping generations of Indians discover ‘their London’, just like in this video.

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This article was produced by the Scroll marketing team on behalf of British Airways and not by the Scroll editorial team.