Director: Borja Alcalde Rubio
The documentary The Sacred Family is first-time director Borja Alcalde Rubio’s love-song to a Peruvian family with whom he became close. Living what looks like an idyllic life in the Sacred Valley of the Incas, shamans Carmen and Sergio long to get back to the Amazon where they once lived with their three children. When they decide to take a road trip in an old camper van, Rubio accompanies them, filming their journey.
Rubio is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but his closeness to the project works against critical insight. His film sidesteps the issue of ayahuasca, the South American plant with powerful hallucinogenic properties used in shamanic rituals. As the film credits various companies involved with microdosing psychedelics, this implies drug use is central to the lives of Carmen and Sergio. But other than a brief reference by Sergio to cutting down on marijuana, the couple don’t speak about it directly. We are left to assume that their intense but often opaque discussions about the meaning of life draw on the visions they have experienced. It’s hard for the sober viewer, however, to relate to comments such as Carmen’s “I connect with the greater purity which is existence” and “only the pure truth enters the heart.”
Potentially, the couple’s three pre-teen children offer a bracing contrast to their parents’ spirituality. Video game enthusiast Valen is regularly seen arguing with his parents, while younger brother Antu is in thrall to his games on his phone. Daughter Lua, the youngest, is happier to get in the zone, dreamily dancing or making patterns with pebbles. In publicity material, Rubio talks of giving the audience multiple viewpoints, but the film lacks the necessary directorial focus to make sense of these. Are the children’s modern-world pleasures supposed to be seen as an ironic comment on their parents’ dreams of a better life in nature? Does their insistent obtuseness deliberately undermine these dreams?
Another issue with Rubio’s closeness is that a lot of the family scenes feel deliberately posed. Valen, in particular, seems to enjoy playing up to the camera, overdoing the angry teenage bit. So, far from documenting intimacy, there is a sense of collusion. We are definitely on the children’s side when they refuse to swim in a murky looking lake, demanding to be taken to somewhere with nice blue chlorine.
Far away from home, they stop the camper van at an ancient sacred site. Carmen and Sergio play their instruments while the two boys mooch around in the background. What we need here and throughout the film is a reflection on what it is the adults are reconnecting to. Later, passing dramatic mountains, they attempt to rouse enthusiasm: “Look at that cave! WOW!” But the children are pleasingly normal, refusing to react. Later still Carmen talks of having found her soul again, but there are no visual or verbal prompts which translate this for the viewer. She takes to reading aloud passages by the Dalai Lama from the back of the van, but again this seems to fall on deaf ears. The scenery throughout is, of course, fabulous, but her sense of reawakening doesn’t seem directly connected to this.
The ending of the family’s journey is handled with mysterious abruptness. What are we to make of Carmen’s silent act of sabotage? And when we are told what happens to the family thereafter, how are we supposed to integrate this with the journey we’ve been shown?
The Sacred Family (La Sagrada Familia) had its World Premiere at Edinburgh International Film Festival on 18 August.