Film Review: Sacred

A cinematic leap of faith delivers a globe-spanning yet strikingly intimate documentary meditation on how believers around the world practice their religion.
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One person’s sacred rite can be another’s idea of blasphemy, or mere insanity. Ringing bells and lighting incense to summon the attention of a god, or self-flagellating in a public square; celebrating the divine hand that brought a husband and wife together, or reveling at the sight of play-actors literally nailing a man to a cross, the worshipers in director Thomas Lennon’s seamlessly constructed, globe-trotting documentary Sacred demonstrate as many ways to express their spirituality as there are locations and languages to be experienced in this remarkable film.

In the case of that Passion-playing “Jesus” in the Philippines who proudly submits his body to actual crucifixion year after year, the film’s unbiased eye casts what might appear to be extreme devotion as routine practice. Gliding from continent to continent, Buddhism to Judaism to Christianity to Islam, birth to death, the filmmakers follow an egalitarian mission to observe the observant without judgment. Quiet, daily practices, like a Muslim father singing a prayer as a lullaby to his sleeping infant, segue to boisterous celebrations and grave ceremonies, propelled by the nimble work of editors Nick August-Perna and Maeve O’Boyle.

Academy Award-winner Lennon(The Blood in Yingzhou District) and his New York-based production team didn’t shoot all the handsomely rendered footage assembled here. Rather, they commissioned far-flung film crewsin more than 25 countries, from Pakistan to Peru, to capture vivid stories and images that reflect rituals and customs that are both idiosyncratically local and globally practiced. Placing such faith in distant hired hands easily could have backfired, resulting in inconsistencies of quality and tone, but the field-agent technique seems to have fostered a sense of purpose that’s, all things considered, impressively consistent.

Finessed with a versatile score that travels but doesn’t pander, and dashes of first-person narration from the onscreen subjects, the blended result stands as a cohesive and eye-opening journey through world religion. The production experiment pays off with an astounding level of intimacy achieved between the subjects and the camera. From a young devotee of Hindu, thrilled to celebrate her faith dancing around the Holi festival fire, to a gravedigger in Sierra Leone who figures that Ebola is proof that “God is really angry with us,” practically none of these believers betrays any sense of self-consciousness or fear of judgment that might lead them to downplay their passion. The lack of defensiveness discussing matters so personal is refreshing and rare.

Which is not to say that the film, as thoughtful as it is well-paced, is all that probing. Examples abound throughout history and in everyday modern life to show that spiritual belief of even the utmost sincerity can be corrupted or twisted to produce massive harm. Yet, Sacred makes no time for those most frightening zealots. And while that young Hindu laments her father’s control over her burgeoning love life, the film doesn’t deal with oppression, or fanaticism. No snake handlers or religious extremists make the cut, although a sensitive, prayerful boy in Karachi does contemplate whether Allah will forgive suicide bombers. He’s certain that their victims and the communities left behind won’t grant them any absolution.

But this trip is more deeply concerned with the ecstasy of the pious than with the agony of their transgressors. For the most part, every priestess, monk and churchgoer here is minding their own business, at liberty to practice their religion, with nary a vocal disparagement of any sect who might worship differently, or not at all. Among the individuals we meet, perhaps one or several might harbor ill will or prejudice towards worshipers of different creeds, but Sacred aims to portray the positivity, the joy and fulfillment, and at times the humor, of practicing religion. Traveling from weddings, to funerals, to a Japanese fertility temple filled with porcelain phalluses, Sacred succeeds with smart casting and sharp juxtapositions in revealing profound similarities shared by some of the most disparate cultures on the planet.

Click here for cast and crew information.