Documentary helmer Stefan Haupt (“The Circle”) largely achieves his “biography of a building” aim with the handsome yet bland “Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation.” Barcelona’s Sagrada Familia is as famous for its unfinished state as for its strange agglomerations reproducing natural forms, and visionary architect Antoni Gaudi remains a cult figure almost 90 years after his death. Haupt interviews a smattering of workmen, artists and architects to flesh out the complex issues involved with construction, but the subject cries out for more depth. Culture vultures have kept the docu kicking around the fest circuit since its 2012 Locarno bow, and now a small U.S. release will generate interest for stronger ancillary.
There really is nothing quite like the Sagrada Familia, with its Gothic antecedents and Tolkien-ish forms. Yet the design didn’t spring from thin air, and Haupt’s most glaring omission is the absence of even a cursory mention of Barcelona’s wildly creative artistic milieu at the time Gaudi began working, in the late 19th century. Not only are the architect’s influences ignored, apart from Montserrat mountain, but no Gaudi work apart from the Sagrada is mentioned or illustrated — a bizarre oversight.
The docu moves through the history, from the laying of the cornerstone in 1882, under a different architect, to Gaudi’s appointment soon after and his gradual obsession with the building. By the time he was killed in a tram accident in 1926, the church was an incomplete building site with just one facade. Lack of money, the Spanish Civil War, and Catalan repression all played a part in hampering construction.
However, since the 1970s, things have been moving ahead, and thanks to masses of paying tourists and the church’s politically symbolic value as a source of Catalan pride, the site has been a hive of activity, with current projections estimating completion in 2026. Haupt interviews chief architect Jordi Bonet i Armengol (succeeded since the documentary’s completion by Jordi Fauli i Oller), who emphasizes the religious element, his words juxtaposed with those of the late British architect David Mackay, providing the sole voice of modernist dissent in questioning the wisdom of cleaving to a design nearly a century old.
More of this counterbalance, or at least some probing inquiry, is needed. When model maker Josep Tallada talks about attempting to reconstruct a “not very important” shattered Gaudi model, shouldn’t someone be wondering whether such a structure might reflect a discarded vision rather than the 3D equivalent of an unimpeachable gospel? Politics are too quickly rushed past, and more could have been said about possible damage should a high-speed train tunnel be dug beneath the foundations.
Where Haupt succeeds is in conveying the passion felt by everyone who works on the Sagrada, from foremen to sculptors (indeed, Etsuro Sotoo takes his obsession to positively Gaudian heights). He’s greatly helped by d.p. Patrick Lindenmaier’s attractive visuals, showcasing the busy interior’s soaring spaces, pierced with striking shafts of light. Less commendable is the confusingly first-person voice over, and the silent, Peter Pan-like figure of dancer Anna Huber, mean to represent the spirit of … of … what, exactly? Bach’s B-minor Mass makes for fine accompaniment (though the performance does not take place in the church). Shooting must have begun in 2010 or earlier, the year of Pope Benedict XVI’s blessing.