By Mónica Delgado

We find in Espíritu sagrado (Sacred Spirit) a concretion of the visual and fictional universe that fascinates the Spanish filmmaker Chema García Ibarra. Codes of “folkloric” science fiction, of ufological and paranormal imaginary in an extravagant range, and ordinary beings alienated to a way of perceiving the world, which can be monstrous, but almost nobody wants to see. This time we are in the community of Elche, in the south of Spain, whose physiognomy refers very well to a village environment akin to vintage nostalgia which invites us to place ourselves in an imprecise, liminal period, where fantasies and beliefs become post-truths, certainties to be protected.

The film begins with some elements that could refer to a thriller or police-film: a ten-year-old girl has disappeared, and the local media report on the situation of the mother and her twin sister, who seems distant given the complexity of the situation. However, the treatment between comedic and burlesque that Chema García Ibarra breathes from the first minutes (like the intro where the twin girl exposes about what she considers to be baptism in her elementary class), already gives us an idea that we are on the grounds of the previous works of this Spanish author. For this reason, the treatment of this disappearance is different in Espíritu Sagrado. The filmmaker stands at the opposite pole to the way the media scoffs, or arouses morbidity, around similar cases, which later become widely viewed documentaries today on Netflix-like platforms (remember the case of Madeleine McCann or that of women murdered by femicides that became Top 10 of these online spaces). Rather, this subplot of disappearance becomes more complex around other broader and cross-cutting events in the community. From the gaze that García Ibarra permeates Elche with, this event looks devoid of sensationalism, and is rather a narrative layer that little by little will be associated with a larger plot: that of the meetings of some members of a UFO cult, who believes in the return of aliens as saving messiahs or in the healing power of abductions. Thus, the logic of the film is situated rather in the singularities of a group of characters (that we could easily label as freaks or social relegates) who attend a cult, and who are like a quasi-statistical sample of the feeling and acting of a whole town.

Another important characteristic that Chema García Ibarra adds is that these two subplots, that of the disappeared girl and that of the fanatic sect, converge in the portrait of the same family: the mother and daughter who seek without much support for the absent girl, the seer idle grandmother, the uncle who is part of the sect and who has a bar in town. These characters (played by non-professional actors and from Elche itself) are capital in the development of the film’s spirit: all of them as part of a place that functions as a microcosm, which seems to be located at the end of the nineties, but also as remains of conservative mentalities of previous decades, with specific routines and with secondary characters or extras that contribute with peculiar details to enrich this vision of an abstracted or alienated community in its ignorance. Characters that recall his protagonists from previous works, such as the one that appears in his short Attack of the Robots in Nebula 5 (2008). A town, moreover, immersed in its own things, like in the fictions of David Lynch’s films, where everyone seems to live idyllically, while horror runs through their feet.

The texture that 16 mm achieves in this new feature film allows to increase the verisimilitude of a “fictional” or recreated people, filmed in warm tones, and which is strengthened by an art direction that precisely leads us to a temporary indefiniteness, which includes Nokia cell phones, mechanical games accompanied by a song by The Cranberries, backpacks with the face of a meme cat, or where places still keep a tribute to times gone by. The remarkable work in photography by Ion de Sosa (director of Sueñan los Androides), another interesting production filmmaker, who has also worked with Luis López Carrasco (The Year of Discovery, Aliens), also reflects a generational empathy for some topics around rethinking the past of Spain from less solemn themes.

And as happens in other works by García Ibarra, such as Uranes (2013), here a world is composed from a social-emotional dimension, where the media in their role as diffusers of pseudosciences and fake news are contributing to shape the perception of the world. The characters exist in this stage of primal naivety, believing in interstellar pharaohs, in the return of an intergalactic order, in healing abductions, because they are also the product of the “hypodermic needle” of these provincial media that condemns them to admire charlatans or tune into worn-out shows of conspiracy theories and gimmicky esotericism. And in this border of transparent, innocent beings, believers in every sense of the word, it is that little by little the real face of the world is emerging. And precisely this clash of truths allows the filmmaker to flee from any crushing political correctness or more condescending vision, and, on the contrary, bet on the symbolic, on an absurd atmosphere, which confirms some characters subjected in this universe of alienation, embodied, ultimately, in what an inflatable fairground doll can offer.

Presented in international competition at the recent Locarno festival, Espíritu Sagrado is a successful immersion in a parallel world, to the rhythm of a narrative reminiscent of pop, which is not afraid to satirize about a credulous society, numb in its ineptitude, oblivious to its own problems.

International competition
Director and scriptwriter: Chema García Ibarra
Cast: Nacho Fernández, Llum Arques, Rocío Ibáñez, Joanna Valverde
Producers: Miguel Molina, Leire Apellaniz, Marina Perales Marhuenda, Xavier Rocher, Enes Erbay
Photography: Ion de Sosa
Editing: Ana Pfaff
Sound: Marianne Roussy, Laure Arto
Sound design: Roberto Fernández
Spain, France, Turkey, 2021