The Sacred Spirit (Espiritu Sagrado)
This darkly comic work walks and, for the most part, masters a tonal tightrope that few filmmakers would dare to risk. What begins as a set of deadpan observations of an asphyxiated part of provincial Spain (Elche, specifically) morphs, by the end, into something much more bitter, melancholy and despairing. The viewer’s appreciation of the dramatic closing rug pull will depend on whether they find the general treatment from writer-director, Chema García Ibarra, to be ironic but fair, or rather mocking and disdainful. It helps that the opening half hour is insistently funny, either way.
A ragtag bunch of ufologists constitute Ovni-Levante, an association of conspiracy theorists and cosmic dreamers who comb old newspapers for reported sightings and share clippings in their weekly meetings. José Manuel (Nacho Fernández) is one of the most devoted participants and takes the reins after the death of the society’s founder. The bar he owns is littered with signs and symbols of Ancient Egypt, a nod to one of the cornerstones of occult belief. His sister, meanwhile, pleads on national television for the return of one of her twin daughters, who has been mysteriously kidnapped. In his debut feature, Ibarra gradually insinuates the links between the two major plot points, providing an unsettling amble towards a horrifying conclusion.
The film insists upon a degree of estrangement from its characters, particularly José, who is presented first as an innocuous, clownish figure and later as the ultimate useful idiot. Shot through a direct perspective, the character is portrayed as insidious by virtue of his desperation for truth and meaning in a world that provides little of either. The moral authority is afforded to his mother, suffering from some form of dementia, whose inarticulacy does not occlude her capacity for clarity and perception. Her son, the wretched protagonist, can claim neither of these attributes and shoulders the empathies of the viewer for much of the runtime.
In fact, José’s foolish ignorance is both a matter of comedy and a source of pity throughout. The shot of him and his niece on a carousel ride highlights this tender characterisation, the camera fixed on their profiles as they spin round and round, happiness flickering across their lips. So, the shocking revelation upon which events pivot firstly appears to be subtext, an audience projection or an act of misdirection. That is until it isn’t. The unfurling ironies, jaunty score and soft visual hues, those which dominate the drama and aesthetic, have in fact hidden the blackest ritual of delusion and exploitation.
The Sacred Spirit (Espiritu Sagrado) does not have a UK release date yet.
Read more reviews from our Locarno Film Festival 2021 coverage here.
For further information about the event visit the Locarno Film Festival website here.
Watch the trailer for The Sacred Spirit (Espiritu Sagrado) here: