'Sacred': Film Review

Courtesy of Thomas Lennon/Argot Pictures/WNET
A high-minded, ambitious project that doesn't add up to much.
5/5/2017

Thomas Lennon travels the world looking at religious ceremonies in everyday life.

Sending 40 teams of filmmakers off to locations from Ethiopia to Connecticut, director Thomas Lennon seeks to find how faith unites us in Sacred. At least that's what he appears to want to do in this peripatetic documentary, which rarely lingers on any subject for long and even more rarely inquires about the beliefs behind the ceremonies it observes. Though it may find some admirers among the kumbaya crowd, this is neither the kind of sense-dazzling experience that sometimes goes mainstream in art houses nor the intellectually challenging fare that draws serious viewers out.

Eschewing narration and keeping explanatory titles to a bare minimum, the film usually only tells us where we are when its setting changes — which can be as frequently as every few seconds. We might, for instance, be watching an aerial shot of Manhattan and hearing the prelude to a New York bris, but cut to a synagogue in Paris for the actual ceremony; a few moments later, we're in Africa for a Christian baptism.

Broken up into three chapters — "Initiation," "Practice" and "Passage" — the movie occasionally prompts one to ask how a scene fits. Why, for instance, would the middle section offer an encounter with workers in Sierra Leone who cautiously take away the bodies of those who've been killed by AIDS, driving through crowds of mourning neighbors to the rapidly filling graveyard nearby? Shouldn't that be in the final act?

At other points, we simply wonder how the grouping of scenes is meant to enlighten us. We may understand, for instance, that an Indian half-sari ceremony, a bar mitzvah in Israel and a ceremonial Apache dance are all coming-of-age rituals. A short film might use these events to tell us how the three cultures are alike and different in their conceptions of an adult's responsibilities, or the differing roles of young men and young women, or how relevant each aging rite is in the present day. Here, though, they're nothing more than eye candy.

Similar complaints pop up throughout, even in the doc's most involving moments. When an adolescent girl participating in Holi complains about being forbidden to date by her father, or a once-lonesome Jewish man talks of his trip to Ukraine to find a bride, we may see subjects we'd willingly spend five or 10 minutes with — or more, if these rare moments of dialogue were paired with relevant counterpoints drawn from another heritage. Sacred might have made for a satisfying web series of thematically related short films. But as a short feature-length movie, it's not much to see.

Production company: WLIW
Distributor: Argot Pictures
Director-producer: Thomas Lennon
Executive producers: William Baker, Julie Anderson
Editors: Nick August-Perna, Maeve O'Boyle
Composer: Edward Bilous

In various languages
85 minutes

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