Sacred: Religion from birth to death

B+ Documentary
Directed by Thomas Lennon

How and why do people practice their religions? And how do these religions effect their followers’ lives? Thomas Lennon sent some 40 camera crews all over the world to find out.

There are no great revelations in this documentary, but it creates a dream-like, meditative state, while allowing you to meet quite a few people whose lives are very different from yours. Each of the many sections introduces you to one or two people; you see them taking part in rituals, struggling or enjoying live, and talking to the filmmakers.

Lennon picked an interesting and effective structure to hang his many stories: the human life cycle – starting with births and ending with deaths. In between there is school, adolescence, weddings, making a living, raising families, and finally death. And through all of it, people celebrate, mourn, practice rituals, and worship.

A film like this almost guarantees to be uneven. Some sequences lack an interesting protagonist and soon become dull. But most open a window into how others live their lives and view the universe. The best sequences are downright transcendent.

Early on, an ecstatic Muslim father holds up his new-born child (new-born as in minutes old), chanting a prayer with such joy that it bubbles out of him. In another Muslim encounter, a father and daughter do their prayers; and this time, it’s the daughter who is beaming.

A Buddhist starts on the trail to become a monk. His mother worries that he’s too playful and mischievous.

A Chasidic man tells us, off-screen, the troubles he had finding a wife and the joy in finding one. Like many ultra-Orthodox Jews, he takes seriously the commandment to be joyful.

Not everyone is happy with faith. A woman in Sierra Leone, who lost her entirely family in the Ebola pandemic, has rejected religion entirely. She doesn’t care if it’s the Church or the Mosque; they’re all the same, and meaningless to her.

And some practices hardly seem like religion, at all. A Japanese couple, hoping to conceive a child, visit a temple filled with very graphic-looking phalluses.

One sequence made me almost scream. In a Filipino recreation of Christ’s Passion, a man – yes, a volunteer – is actually nailed to a cross. It wasn’t his first time.

Surprisingly, two of the best sequences concentrate on American Christians. In the first of these, a prisoner with a life sentence (no hope for parole) has found Jesus and become a prison chaplain. The other is an old woman, facing her own death. She talks about the essentially selfish prayers of her youth, and how she now uses the Internet to find other sick people to pray for.

I suppose the intended message, if there is an intended message, is the universality of human worship. But what Sacred uncovers is the good, bad, joyful, and utterly insane aspects of religion.