I’ve written enough promotional copy in my career to know it would be silly of me to laugh at the blurb for the new Netflix documentary Stories of a Generation, featuring Pope Francis, about folks like me: “In candid and heartwarming stories, inspiring women and men over 70 share poignant life lessons and pivotal choices from their remarkable journeys.”
Laugh, no; chuckle, maybe.
Begin with the fact that such a congeries of interviews is highly selective: both in who was interviewed and, of course, in their edited responses. Everybody is on his or her best behavior. By that I mean that some subjects, known to be cantankerous (e.g., Martin Scorsese), are here all smiles before the camera.
There is no depression and little anger: mostly sweetness and light, and phrases such as “So, if we could all just learn to love and to respect, the world would be a very different place.” Jane Goodall, the primatologist, says that, which is fine. She has no power over your life. But in one way or another it’s what Xi Jinping dictates: to the people of Hong Kong (and to China’s Christians and Muslims; well, not the Muslims – them he puts in concentration camps), and even Ms. Goodall, shown in Stories of a Generation leading an American crowd in a closed-fist chant of “Together we can! Together we will!,” is given to unpleasant stridency. Most activists are.
Each of the eighteen interviewees who speak in this four-part documentary (Love, Dream, Struggle, Work) has been chosen because he or she has come through difficulties and endured. They’ve learned a thing or two.
Odd though, that much of what these good people talk about concerns experiences from many years past, and, in most cases, there’s no summary judgment. Nobody says, I was blind but now I see, or the equivalent.
Most of these folks are still working, and none of them is playing shuffleboard in a retirement community. One is a woman who still skydives. Another is a man who still surfs. A Vietnamese shoemaker says that “if you are passionate about your work, you can work your entire life.”
Most also want, as Ms. Goodall suggests, to make the world a better place and are engaged in work that Pope Francis has spent his pontificate promoting. There are women who fight for political justice in Latin America. There’s a man whose life changed when he rescued drowning migrants trying to reach Italy. There’s a Mexican midwife, and a Nigerian textile designer who passes on her craft to young women.
One of the justice seekers, Estella de Carlotto (at 91, the oldest) is an Argentine human-rights activist whose daughter was kidnapped and killed during the dark days of the junta, the “Process of National Reorganization,” that ran Argentina between 1976 and 1983.
She is the same woman who, after Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio was elected pope, said: “Bergoglio belongs to that part of the Church which has cast a shadow over Argentina.” She meant he had been in cahoots with the military. She chided:
There is always time. When someone commits a crime or a mistake, even if it is not considered a crime, there is time to think over and make a mea culpa. I think it is a supreme Christian act to confess a sin, to repent and feel contrition.
After a face-to-face meeting with Papa Bergoglio, however, she said she’d been misinformed. Her previous condemnation of Francis’ pre-papal life is not referenced in the documentary.
Austra Bertha Flores Lopez, very much like Mrs. Carlotto, speaks darkly about the murder of her daughter, Berta Cáceres, a Honduran feminist and indigenous-rights activist. She’s not looking back on a horror from decades ago, however: Berta was gunned down by thugs in 2016.
Typical of many recent documentaries, the film jumps back and forth from person to person, to the point of being erratic, almost frenzied. We meet a Nigerian textile designer, who begins to tell her story; then we cut to a Mexican midwife who begins to relate hers; then to a Vietnamese shoemaker; and then to Mr. Scorsese (reminiscing about abandoning thoughts of the priesthood to become a filmmaker); and finally, we meet Moshe Basson, an Israeli chef – all this in a span of maybe 15 minutes. It’s chaotic. And the subjects of the interviews often repeat themselves.
Repetition has a way of deflating drama. Mind you, their stories are sometimes compelling, and there are lessons to be learned, which Pope Francis moves to underscore, appearing between a number of segments within each 90-minute episode to relate his personal thoughts about loving, dreaming, struggling, and working.
One very fine thing: It’s a pleasure to look at all these aging faces; itself a very important discipline for young and old alike. As I near my 75th birthday, I still sometimes look at 80- and 90-year-old people with the shiver I felt at 22 during a year working in a nursing home. Then it was partly context, I suppose. I felt superior to the people there, nearly all of whom had been abandoned by their children and grandchildren, and every one of whom hoped to be taken “home.” For some that meant heaven; for most, it meant back to their own beds in their own houses with their own loved ones, filial affection restored.
In this regard, the Holy Father tells a wonderful story, related to him by his grandmother. A family is caring for the father’s father, who is beginning to have trouble at table: spilling food on himself and drooling. So, the father says, “We’ll set him up in the kitchen from now on. Then we can eat in peace and even invite friends for dinner.” The next day he comes home from work to find his young son busily working with a hammer, nails, and wood. “What are you doing,” he asks. The boy says, “Building a table for you when you’re old.”
You may also enjoy:
Fr. Bevil Bramwell OMI’s Aging Like Real Catholics
+James V. Schall S.J.’s Schall at 91—an Interim Report