Thomas Lennon’s gentle, optimistic, globe-spanning exploration of faith and religion is more pleasant than punchy.
An impressively global project yields an attractive, mild if rather diffuse film in “Sacred,” a respectful exploration by documentarian Thomas Lennon (“The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” Oscar-winning short doc “The Blood of Yingzhou District”) of faith and religious practice across the globe. Designed as a sort of corrective to the negative connotations that the very concept of organized religion might engender in today’s world, whether among secular liberals or among adherents of one of the major faiths in regard to the others, it is entirely well intentioned. But the fair-mindedness of Lennon’s approach also contributes to a sense, ironically enough, of godlike detachment from the slivers of life and faith the film comprises.
Taking a leaf from the book of documentary master Frederick Wiseman in eschewing on-screen intervention by the filmmaker, “Sacred” has no single narrator and the titles it offers are minimal — usually just the first name of the subject and the town and country in which they are filmed. Occasionally we hear them speak in voiceover, describing their relationship to their faith, the succor it provides, and the sense of community, family and selfhood that it promotes. The reach of the film is remarkable: It took 40 filmmakers scattered across the continents and two years of shooting, assembling and editing to wrangle these slim 86 minutes. There’s no doubt that “Sacred” achieves its gentle aim of proving that the commonalities of individual devotional experience across vast divisions of geography, culture and faith are greater and more fundamental than the differences.
From a Muslim man softly singing the call to prayer to his newborn child, to a bris ceremony in France, to a wedding in a refugee camp, to a burial ritual in Madagascar, to a Hasidic pilgrimage in Ukraine, to a mass grave for Ebola victims in Sierra Leone, to a dying woman getting a hospital checkup in Connecticut, the film ranges loosely from birth to death. Technically, the smoothness of the experience is notable: Despite the multitude of filmmaking teams involved, the visual style is uniform in its crisp, fresh and often lyrical cinematography. Edits from one scene to another taking place thousands of miles away are often neatly matched: A Vancouver lady watering her back garden with a hose cuts to a rain-paddled alleyway in Lahore.
That connective tissue is largely circumstantial rather than thematic. But then the film does not want to make any particularly controversial points or provocative associations. As a kind of National Geographic travelogue, with an emphasis on the beauty and specificity of religious practice as a subset of global cultural diversity, it holds anthropological value. But skeptics may long for something a little punchier: Aside from one young Indian Muslim stating, “Islam says suicide bombers go to Hell and their victims go to heaven,” the film rarely ventures near the politically or socially controversial aspects of the faiths its subjects practice.
While “Sacred” clearly is designed more to celebrate than to critique, it’s perhaps a shame that the film is not a little more hard-hitting, especially as the more ambivalent segments are often the most memorable. A lengthy section in Angola prison in Louisiana highlights how even those inmates whose conversion seems sincere are also desirous of earthly rewards — such as early release — for their newfound piety. Later, an African mango seller talks of having lost her faith when her family died. The only atheist in a film full of believers, she all but rolls her eyes at the mosque and the church behind her before posing a Big Question: “Why would God let poor people die?” The film lets the query dangle. Then, under the soothing violin arpeggios of Edward Bilous’ fine score, it simply moves on, like a stone skimming prettily over deep and treacherous waters, to observe some new act of devotion half a world away.