Locarno 2021 review: Sacred Spirit (Chema Garcia Ibarra)

Elche is a rather anonymous city in Spain, located in the shadow of her neighbour Alicante. Even though Elche is quite big, Alicante is bigger, plus it is on the Mediterranean seashore with the glamour that brings, while Elche ends up with the lacklustre desert backdrop and the strenuous industrial activity. In this context it is no surprise that inhabitants of this overlooked town, such as the protagonists of Sacred Spirit, are eager to put their faith in the paranormal and the potential of the astral realm, to detach themselves from the dull physical world that they experience with no perspective.

José Manuel, the main character of the film, is a member of a ufology association, among other esoteric interests. He has decorated his whole living environment with ancient Egyptian iconography: the café he owns, the walls in his home, even his bed linen, which is quite a startling sight to behold. José Manuel lives with his disabled mother in order to care for her – once a clairvoyant, she now has Alzheimer’s and is in a wheelchair. José Manuel also has a sister, Charo, estranged from her mother who never got over the fact that Charo got pregnant with twin girls in her teens. One of those girls has disappeared for a few weeks when the film begins, with the police having no clue whatsoever to her whereabouts.

It takes only a few scenes before the story deviates from the search for the girl, which becomes an underlying theme rather than a primary issue, in line with the fact that Charo plays only a secondary part in her family. She is the only one not deeply immersed in mumbo-jumbo, which is fed to them through TV shows, YouTube videos and live lectures. As he follows José Manuel and his relatives, his friends and his mentors who compose this peculiar fringe group, director Chema Garcia Ibarra (making his first feature film, after several short ones over the last decade) manages to walk a thin line. With his sober and composed way of depicting how his characters lead their everyday lives, he neither mocks their beliefs (or madness, depending on how you see it) nor does he endorse them.

For this reason and others Sacred Spirit cannot really be related to any known family of Spanish filmmaking. For example, the absence of irony in Garcia Ibarra’s gaze at his protagonists prevents any connection with the satiric comedies from the likes of Alex de la Iglesia. Likewise, the way the director refuses to harness in an emotionally abusive manner the dramatic potential of his story pulls him away from manipulative melodramas in the vein of Magical Girl by Carlos Vermut. Garcia Ibarra simply follows his singular path, half plain and half bizarre, with Quentin Dupieux as his sole fellow traveler from time to time, when the characters venture into the desert and some eerie electronic music underlines the weirdness of what is going on, like in Rubber or Wrong. But unlike Dupieux’s nonsensical universes, Sacred Spirit is rooted in reality, as its final twist expresses bluntly. The so-called incredible is revealed to be nothing but a veil for tragically human wrongdoing, and the story as old as time. The life the believers in the paranormal were living was not one of an untold miracle, but a gloomier one – people luring others into delusions of grandeur, only for the benefit of their destructive individual agendas.