Sacred, an expansive project by documentary filmmaker Thomas Lennon, presents an hour and a half of religious vignettes from around the world. The project’s wide scope is striking: audiences can feel the impact of ritual, from the way a Madagascan community buries and re-buries their dead to the way a dying woman methodically responds to Christian calls for prayer on Facebook. Don’t go in to the film expecting any social or political investigations—Sacred is not about ideology. Instead, the film offers a few moments of private observance, a number of communities united by custom and celebration, and a lavish demonstration of religion’s visual power.
This is a great movie for jaded atheist urbanites who can’t distinguish “religious” from “Republican,” go through life fuming at the injustice of indoctrination, and believe worship is just a hallmark of stupidity. Sure, they will be disappointed by the absence of critical thought about the ways in which belief divides communities and creates rigid, illogical cultural rules. But they’ll also be reminded that religion is about way more than their infuriatingly pious aunty Karen—and that religion, with all its baggage, is absolutely beautiful.
Even though it was shot by more than 40 filmmaking teams from around the world, Sacred manages to be cohesive by assembling a shockingly wide variety of grand and imposing visual displays. Faith is personal, quiet, and humble, and we see it portrayed a few times throughout the film. But organized religion is the main focus, and that is all about performance. It celebrates splendor and excess. It demands props, costumes, and an elaborate set. It’s packed with acting, singing, dancing, and art. Basically, it’s the fun part of religion. (It’s no surprise that my favorite holiday is Passover, which is essentially a read-through of a musical accompanied by food.)
If the drama of worship is not enticing enough, Sacred also functions as an anthropological survey full of charming and tantalizingly short scenes. You won’t want to miss the man who buries Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, or a passionate sermon in Botswana, or the church in Warsaw filled with thousands of glowing candles. About halfway through Sacred, the film’s lone atheist wrinkles her nose while telling the camera, “The mosque and church are all the same. I don’t see any difference.” She might be right about the futility of religion, but there are plenty of differences—and they’re fascinating.
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