IFFR 2021 review: Liborio (Nino Martínez Sosa)

Returns from heaven
To move the people
And raise the dead
Of this land of ours

It’s dark. The rain floods the screen, the drops rumbling heavily on the thick leaves of a tropical jungle. A man, defeated by nature, finds solace in a cave. And then he raises his hands to the sky and vanishes. Such is the captivating and immersive start of Liborio, and its recurring themes of (im)mortality, nature, tradition and mysticism are established. Liborio emerged as director and writer Nino Martínez Sosa’s idea to tell the story of Papá Liborio, a messianic figure that became the leader of a cult-like community in the south of the Dominican Republic in the first years of the twentieth century. After disappearing for several days when a hurricane hit the Hispaniola island, Liborio returned to life and quickly garnered a following, creating a self-sustaining and welcoming community with him as the shaman-like figure at its core.

What’s more enthralling about Liborio is the way it chooses to narrate. Eschewing a more traditional focus on the main character, we are instead confronted with a seven-chapter structure, following the seven lines of a sorrowful and emotional poem, each chapter dealing with a different character’s perspective on the events unfolding. The camera is magnetically attracted to Liborio’s son, then to his lover, then to a man that arrives at the community, then to an American military, and so on. And it is through their perspectives, often deftly framed with them in the foreground and Liborio behind in deep focus, that we begin to understand Liborio not through who he is, but by what he does to others. Liborio feels like a secondary character in what is supposed to be his story, but ends up being the story of how a community coalesces and resists together around a unifying figure. This narrative strategy effectively leaves Liborio partially veiled in mystery, and the film resists both a hagiographic and a condemning stance, refusing easy moral judgements on his actions.

The veil of mystery is also present in Liborio’s miracles. With a growing fame all over the south of the island for raising the dead, people arrive at the community looking for Liborio’s help and guidance. The film smartly chooses not to question the truthfulness of this prodigy, and turns its eye towards the healing accomplished by whatever Liborio does, at an individual and a collective level. When the American military arrive at the community looking to disarm them to ‘establish peace’, it is evident that the community is a deeply political force too, and that the very fact that they exist and thrive without submitting to the outside world is a menace to the political and economic ‘development’ that is brought to the island by external forces.

Liborio unfolds as a Jesus-like figure, a resistance leader, with the political and spiritual sides coexisting indistinguishably. In a similar fashion the dream world and the waking world communicate with each other throughout the film, with no interest in discerning what the Western gaze would classify as real or fictitious. The accomplished world-building is aided by gorgeous shots of the Dominican jungle and with detailed soundscapes, both at full force in the aforementioned opening scene. Time is elusive, and we are never really told when the story takes place, but are invited to guess from elements such as the costume design and the American intervention on Dominican soil. Similarly to Ciro Guerra and Cristina Gallego’s Birds of Passage, the passage of time is marked by the production design as we see the community’s territory widening.

For all its accomplishments, the film does rely on a time-linear narrative, with a focus on specific historical events that move the story forward, more closely related to a traditional historiography than to the alternative version of history/histories suggested by the choral approach. It’s why small moments that show the community dancing and singing at night are so striking in comparison to the rest of the film. They punctuate the story, giving it room to breathe and to show the dynamics of everyday life in the community.

Liborism is currently alive in some communities in the Dominican Republic, and is just one of thousands of religious, cultural and political manifestations in Latin America with deep and complex histories that show how people have learned, in inventive and creative ways, to inhabit their territories. Films such as Liborio are a miracle and a testament to the undying forces that move societies.