Sacred: A Beautiful Human Portrait of World Religions—and Their Limits

Gar Smith
Friday March 09, 2018 - 02:43:00 PM

Opens March 9 at the Rialto Cinemas Elmwood in Berkeley

As a documentary film, Thomas Lennon's Sacred stands apart—a rare collaborative visual anthology created by more than 40 filmmaking crews working independently in 25 different countries around the world. Credit for the concept and the editing goes to Lennon, an Academy Award-winning director/producer.

Described by its distributor, Argot Pictures, as "a multi-million dollar global documentary . . . two years in the making," Sacred offers a visually rich 97-minute tour-de-faith—a snapshot-scrapbook of religious practices around the world and the impact they have on the lives of people from birth to death.  


The three sections of the film loosely address the themes of religious initiation, personal practice, and the closure of aging and mortality. 

According to the press kit, Sacred shows "how people turn to ritual and prayer to navigate the milestones and crises of private life." But to this former-Boy-Scout-troop-chaplain-turned-agnostic, the reliance on church and temple, looks more like religion used as a crutch—a time-tested potion against powerlessness, poverty and suffering. 

In Pakistan, a Muslim boy proclaims: "Whatever we want in the world, we must pray for it." Submission is a given. Prayer becomes the most exalted form of begging. 

"We pray five times a day," says another practitioner. "My life is up to God. It's fate." 

In disease-ravaged Sierra Leone, the catastrophic spread of the Ebola virus is seen as "God's judgment." 

Some Memorable Encounters 

Sacred is filled with close-up, intense, personal moments and colorful, sweeping episodes of public ceremony—religious parades, pilgrimages, mortifications and, in the Philippines, a scene of a true-believer suffering an actual real-life crucifixion. 

In Peru, there is a spectacular parade of masked revelers that looks like a commedia dell'arte troupe dropped acid. 

In Ethiopia, a wiry older man armed with a wooden cane, struggles barefoot across miles of rocky terrain to visit a holy shrine—to gather a handful of dirt that can be carried home and set aside to be spread on his grave. "Forgive us," he prays as he crawls inside the shrine's dark doorway for a blessing. "Absolve us." 

One of Sacred's merriest episodes involves a burial ceremony in Madagascar. A corpse sewn inside a shroud is carried overhead by jubilant throngs. The body is deposited in a stone tomb with three large bottles of alcohol left to guard the door. But the bottles are quickly commandeered by the mourners and the party continues. 

From the opening scenes of Sacred, one message is clear: the first victims of religion are children. 

An infant is handed over to a pair of men who wield a cutting tool to circumcise the screaming boy. On the other side of the world, an uncomprehending child who can barely stand, is placed in a tub and "anointed" with chilling rivulets of water. The child's parents look on with smiles of approval—as the bewildered infant screams in shock. 

In Myanmar, a pre-teen boy is painted with make-up, fitted with lipstick, false eyelashes, and a golden costume. As he marches down a dirt road towards a monastery with other children, he looks forward to his initiation. "It will make me taller," he predicts. 

As his hair is shaved off his head, his mother worries: "He was always very playful around the house. I worry he will be playful in the monastery." (A playful child? Buddha, forbid!) 

While the film is spellbinding and wide-ranging, there's no way it could have offered a comprehensive collection of religious practices. While there is a scene of Native American's engaged in a Sunrise Ceremony, there are no scenes of funeral pyres along the Ganges, and no mention of the religious differences that fuel too many wars across the globe. There are only a few sights of the dead, of grieving or graves. 

There are many memorable faces, voices, and stories in Lennon's film, however. Some make their impact in a moment. Others span out over several minutes of close, personal introspection. 

In Israel, a woman speaks of "a superior being" and then observes slyly that: "She must be happy with my children." 

In Africa, a deeply traumatized woman named Abigail, openly rejects both Christianity and Islam. "After the death of my family," she says, "I have no religion." 

In Connecticut, a woman named Carolyn speaks through a breathing tube in her nose and observes: "Prayer matures. God wants conversation." 

In Kathmandu, a believer notes the beauty of existence. "When the Gods come down to Earth," he says, "they don't want to go back to heaven." 

Sacred may not provoke a religious awakening but it provides a memorable glimpse into the many shapes and sounds that define religious practice today. 

Note: The first three days of the film's Berkeley run will feature a trio of guest speakers, beginning on Friday with Spring Washam, author of A Fierce Heart, Rev. Ben Daniel (Montclair Presbyterian Church) on Saturday and Rev. Will McGarvey (Interfaith Council of Contra Costa County) on Sunday. All three speakers will be available for a Q&A session following the 7PM screenings.