NEW YORK (CNS) — Moving, provocative, if often vexingly ephemeral, the documentary “Sacred” debuts on PBS Monday, Dec. 10, 10 p.m.-11:30 p.m. EST. (Broadcast times may vary in some markets.)
The Peabody Award-winning director and producer Thomas Lennon (“The Battle Over Citizen Kane,” 1996) culled through 40 filmmakers’ footage to explore the religious practices and rituals that shape people globally.
Absent a narrator’s explication and expert commentary, Lennon largely allows the disparate footage to speak for itself, albeit embellished by frequently vivid cinematography and Edward Bilous’ resonant musical score. Initiation, Practice and Passage are the chapters that frame the documentary’s profiles of Hindus, Buddhists, Muslims, Pentecostals, Jews and Catholics.
The pilgrimage of a nameless Buddhist monk in Japan is featured in the film’s captivating preamble and provides the one constant narrative thread throughout “Sacred.” It will likely prove the element of the program that most impresses, moves, intrigues and puzzles the audience.
Meeting him as he begins his Kaihogyo, a 1,000-day, 40,000-kilometer trek around Japan’s Mount Hiei (the equivalent of circling the globe), viewers will be amazed at the monk’s endurance — even if they may not entirely understand his quest. Near the end of his journey, he chants unremittingly without food, water or sleep.
If he wants to “achieve priesthood,” he says, “I must continue these ascetic practices the rest of my life.”
The documentary also follows people finding faith in surprising places. With no hope of ever being released from the state penitentiary in Angola, Louisiana — one of the country’s more notorious prisons — two African-American convicts, Terrence and Justin, minister to other inmates.
“Learning about God,” Terrence says, “made me mad about the things I’ve done in my life, the sins I’ve committed.” “It’s hard to exemplify heaven,” Justin reminds viewers, “in the midst of hell.”
To its credit, “Sacred” doesn’t shy away from difficult questions. Consider the plight of Sierra Leone native Abigail. The Ebola virus wiped out her entire family. When viewers first encounter her, she weeps with relief because she knows she can sell enough mangoes to buy something more substantial to eat that day.
Having lost her religion, however, she can’t see the difference between a church and a mosque — because a loving and merciful God “wouldn’t allow poor people to die.”
By contrast with Abigail’s experience, mature Pakistani woman Bashira’s powerful story strikes a more hopeful note. Viewers travel with her as she makes the Hajj, the pilgrimage to the city of Mecca in Saudi Arabia that’s required of all Muslims at least once in their lifetimes — provided they can afford the journey. Overhead shots of the masses of pilgrims are dazzling.
Having lost her husband and son to murder, Bashira’s Meccan experience liberates her to forgive their killers.
A young Spanish women’s devotion to the Madonna and Filipino believers’ re-enactment of the Crucifixion, over the objections of the local church, highlight the portion of “Sacred” devoted to Catholicism.
In addition to being less than representative of the mainstream faith, this gruesome crucifixion scene contributes to restricting the appropriate audience for the film. So, too, do the phallic images employed in Buddhist fertility rituals. Discussions of war, criminality and disease also point to a grown-up viewership. Because it aims to edify, however, some parents may consider “Sacred” apt fare for mature adolescents as well.
Despite its numerous astonishing and stimulating moments, the show sometimes seems frustratingly fragmentary. Ambitious to a fault perhaps, the filmmakers often include scenes that fail to go anywhere before ending abruptly. Viewers are left to wonder why these aimless interludes were included when they don’t in any way enhance the documentary’s artistic vision.
More judicious editing from Lennon’s collaborators Maeve O’Boyle and Nick August-Perna would have sharpened the program’s focus considerably. At its best, though, “Sacred” still manages to portray not only the spectacle but some of the substance of the world’s varied religions.
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Byrd is a guest reviewer for Catholic News Service.