The Letter: a film that reminds us not to look away

Watch it with us this month – invite below!

When the Oscars were announced this year, “The Letter: A Message For Our Earth,” which “stars” Pope Francis and five ecological activists, didn’t make the cut. But you could make a strong case that the 80-minute documentary inspired by the papal encyclical Laudato Si’ is the most spiritually and ecologically significant film released last year.

Already, more than 8.4 million people have watched “The Letter” on YouTube, the website that released the film as part of its YouTube Originals series. Produced by the Oscar-winning team at Off the Fence Productions, with assistance from the Laudato Si’ Movement and the Vatican, the film was directed by Nicholas Brown, an acclaimed director of several nature documentaries. 

On YouTube, where the film is free to watch, the comments section beneath the film is a virtual Amen corner, with viewers from several continents testifying to the film’s emotional power. “The impact of it brought me to tears,” writes one. “Well done for capturing the raw pain this issue is having on people around the world.”

Brown’s eye for stunning details is evident in every frame, from shots of a Franciscan ringing church bells in Assisi to the eerie effects created by watching an Amazonian bird blink in slow motion. There are no throwaway moments or filler material in this film. The eye remains enraptured. But ultimately, the human stories pack the most emotional power.

Four-years in the making, the film follows five protagonists to a meeting with Pope Francis at the Vatican. Each represents groups often marginalized, if not ignored, in climate discussions: the youth, the poor, the Indigenous and nature itself. The film takes care to present their personal stories, rendering the protagonists less as symbols than real people with real stakes in protecting our Common Home. They are: Ridhima Pandey, a climate activist from India, representing the youth. Arouna Kandé, a climate refugee in Senegal, representing the poor. Cacique Dadá, an environmental defender and leader of the Maró Indigenous territory in the Brazilian Amazon, representing the Indigenous. And Greg Asner and Robin Martin, biologists studying coral reefs in Hawaii, who represent Nature.

Pope Francis, too, plays a large role in the film. Early in “The Letter,” he explains what led to his “ecological conversion,” to borrow a phrase from Laudato Si’.

“It’s so strange,” he tells an unseen audience in Rome. “What does ecology have to do with evangelization?” As Francis continues in a voiceover, viewers are shown stunning images of Senegal, a country devastated by droughts and rising sea levels. “A bishop once told me that he was traveling from one island to the next, visiting communities, and he came across a tree coming out of the sea. And he thought that was strange and commented to the boat’s captain.”

“And the captain answered, ‘No, there was an island there and now it is gone. Climate change.’ And at a certain moment I realized that I had to say something about it from here,” Francis said, gesturing to his role as leader of the global Catholic Church. “So I met with some scientists and asked them to outline the problems that we know are clear. Then I met with some theologians and asked them, “What can we say about this? This is serious. And that’s how Laudato Si’ was born.”

When the five protagonists, none of whom are traditional Catholics, travel to Rome, they meet with Pope Francis, who greets them warmly and asks about their work. He then offers a Bible lesson, comparing our economy to the Tower of Babel, a monument to hubris and indifference. When workers dropped a brick, work on the tower was stopped and the worker punished, Francis says. When a laborer fell to his death, work continued unabated.

“But we’ve taken an extra step,” the Pope says. “If nature falls, nothing happens.”

The Pope becomes so emotionally invested in his story that he forgets he is speaking in Spanish, his native tongue, instead of Italian, and apologizes to the translators, “I’ve spoken from the heart,” he says, smiling about his mistake. “My heart is in Spanish.”

The five activists, of course, forgive the Holy Father, and later share a moment in which they, too, are emotionally swept away. While in Assisi after meeting the Pope, Kandé learns that his Quranic school has been destroyed by floods. The students must sleep standing up because there are no dry places to lie. What’s more, he learns, a boat carrying climate refugees from his town has capsized during a storm, killing dozens.

As Kandé tearfully shares this news with the other activists, they encircle him, their sorrow mixing with outrage and a desire to offer comfort. Kande, overwhelmed, walks away, and the camera lingers on him, just out of focus, while the others stand by, concerned but helpless.

“It makes me so angry because we don’t know how to help,” says Lorna Gold, a Scottish climate activist and president of the Board of the Laudato Si’ Movement, who acts as a guide for the group. But “once you know, you cannot look away,” she insists. “You cannot look away.”

Thanks to this powerful film, millions of people will know the story of Aroune Kande and his fellow climate refugees. Hopefully, they, too, will refuse to look away.

Watch with us!

Catholic Climate Covenant is partnering with Laudato Si’ Movement to host a virtual screening of “The Letter,” on April 25th and 26th complete with a viewing of the film, discussion, and a Q&A on how and why to host your own screening in your parish or community. Learn more or register for a screening date below.

We will host TWO online screenings this Earth Month: a daytime screening on April 25th and an evening screening on April 26th! Each screening will include an opportunity to watch the film, a general discussion, and breakout sessions to choose from: 

  • Further discussion on themes from the film 
  • A screening Q&A to get you ready to host your own screening 
  • A youth focused discussion 
  • A young adult focused discussion 

Register for one of these two April screenings today!


Tuesday, April 25th – 1-3 pm Eastern (10 am -12pm Pacific) Register here 


Wednesday, April 26th – 7-9 pm Eastern (4-6 pm Pacific) Register here

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