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Vivo/Alive: A documentary about Eucharistic adoration returns to theaters for one day only

Following a Fathom Events US debut in April, a moving Spanish documentary about the transformative power of the Eucharist returns to theaters for an encore screening.

Note: Alive/Vivo is in theaters Tuesday, June 21st only.

The year before Covid hit, a Pew study revealed that nearly 7 in 10 US Catholics, including over a third of weekly Mass-goers, believe that the Communion bread and wine merely symbolize, but do not become, the body and blood of Jesus Christ. In response to this alarming reality check, the US bishops have launched a three-year Eucharistic revival effort, which officially began on June 16, 2022 — the date of Corpus Christi, where it is not transferred to Sunday — and planned to culminate in 2024 in a National Eucharistic Congress.

In Spain, where self-identified Catholics make up over half the population but fewer than 15% are weekly Mass-goers, a movement called Hakuna — a private association of the faithful that traces its origins to the 2013 World Youth Day in Rio de Janeiro — has been focused on Eucharistic revival for years. Hakuna Films’ Alive, or Vivo — even the title resonates with the idea of revival — is both a document and an instrument of the movement’s advocacy of Eucharistic adoration.

First-time feature director and cinematographer Jorge Pareja Trigo’s method is simple but effective. Using an off-camera interview style, with subjects addressing an unseen, unheard interviewer, Pareja weaves together four conversion stories following individuals who range from conventionally observant to adamantly atheist on various paths to transformative encounters with God, and particularly with Jesus in the Eucharist.

A middle-aged couple, Antonio and Sonsoles, find their comfortable status quo challenged by an emotional retreat experience. Andrea, a self-possessed young woman reeling from her boyfriend’s death in a vehicular accident, accompanies a friend to a Holy Hour out of curiosity. Two young men — Jaime, a violent, neo-Nazi delinquent, and Carlos, a high achiever studying medicine — find dramatic new perspective on mission trips to Calcutta.

Pareja focuses mainly on his five subjects, with occasional supplementary viewpoints from friends or family members. Carlos comes across as self-deprecating as he confesses that he used to think that religion was only for old people, but our first impression of him comes from a friend, a young woman, who remembers him as arrogantly dismissive of other religious points of view. Later she jokes that Carlos’ sudden religious fervor is more surprising than if he had come out as transgender. Andrea is introduced from the perspective of a college friend who remembers her as outwardly together but distant in her grief. Marital bantering between Antonio and Sonsoles provides contrasting perspectives on their journey.

In most of the stories, the journey of faith is fostered by a devout friend whose lifestyle helps — as Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger once put it — to “make God credible.” Carlos describes his amazement the first time he met a normal, down-to-earth young person who was also a devout believer and could respond intelligently to Carlos’ skeptical cross-examination. For Andrea, there was a young woman whose radiant inner peace she found both off-putting and attractive. As for Jaime, despite his reported descent into drugs and alcohol, violence, and skinhead culture, a lifelong friendship with a priest he admired was his lifeline when he hit rock bottom.

The film benefits from some photogenic settings: Andrea sits cross-legged on a beach for much of her interview footage, while Jaime sits under an arch of the Acqua Felice aqueduct in the scenic Parco degli Acquedotti near Rome. The subjects, too, are photogenic: Carlos, Andrea, and Jaime are young and attractive, and Antonio and Sonsoles are a fine-looking couple. Even crowd scenes toward the end of the film suggest the predominantly youthful vibe of the Hakuna movement: A few gray heads notwithstanding, these are not the elderly churchgoers that Carlos associated with religion. The church spaces themselves are more contemporary and less traditional than might be featured in a presentation on Eucharistic adoration made by American Catholics. The closing scenes are shot in El Pilar Parish in Madrid, a white-walled, cruciform church dominated by an immense, moody mural of what appears to be St. John’s visions in Revelation circa chapter 12. The Host is enthroned in an unusual monstrance made of a piece of twisted driftwood, somehow reminding me of the glowing tip of Gandalf’s staff in The Fellowship of the Ring.

A talking-head documentary stands or falls by its editing. Pareja and screenwriter Jaime Pineda, who share editing credits, display a shrewd penchant for cutting from one subject to the next just as it seems they’re about to say something significant, developing a sense of anticipation and sustaining viewer interest. Vivo builds to an effective climax almost exactly halfway through its 90-minute run time, as all four stories converge in life-changing experiences in connection with the Mass or Eucharistic adoration. Carlos effectively speaks for all the participants when he says, “I thought, ‘It’s true. God exists. Love exists…’ This sounds very mystical…[but] there are certain experiences in life, moments that determine your entire existence.”

It’s significant that this climax comes halfway through, rather than at the finale. This means that Vivo doesn’t simply build to an emotional high, or even to a spiritual or mystical experience — as if going to a Holy Hour and finding God put an end to the cares and troubles of life. What I’ve called the Harry Cheney Principle states that “an encounter with Christ should propel the action, not end it.” In the second half of the documentary, the subjects grapple with what their new (or renewed) religious commitment means for their lives, or how to respond to unexpected life challenges on the basis of their faith. One important thread in this second half, involving a problem pregnancy, has a strong pro-life theme, evoking the film’s title and the heartbeat metaphor linked to it.

Aside from a few brief remarks from a priest offering minimal context on Eucharistic praxis and reflections on God’s pursuit of the soul, Vivo remains focused on the experiences of its subjects and their spirituality. It’s not a catechetical or apologetical presentation, but a portrait of five souls and a document, perhaps, of the workings of grace. Vivo is alive.

P.S.: Vivo is accompanied in theaters by a 17-minute featurette featuring additional interview footage with both English-speaking and Spanish-speaking clergy and religious, including Bishop Andrew Cozzens, bishop of Crookston, Minnesota, and Pauline Center director Sister Nancy Usselmann. This extra might have been used to provide theological context for the spirituality depicted in the documentary, but the focus is on reinforcing the passion of the documentary’s subjects rather than making it more intelligible for viewers with no background in Eucharistic theology and spirituality.


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About Steven D. Greydanus 30 Articles
Steven D. Greydanus is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle, a permanent deacon in the Catholic Archdiocese of Newark, and the founder of DecentFilms.com. He has degrees in media arts and religious studies. He and his wife Suzanne have seven children.

9 Comments

  1. We read: “The closing scenes are shot in El Pilar Parish in Madrid, a white-walled, cruciform church dominated by an immense, moody mural of what appears to be St. John’s visions in Revelation circa chapter 12.”

    Well, at least the mural wasn’t Archbishop Paglia’s self-portrait extravaganza a short distance from Rome. https://www.lifesitenews.com/news/leading-vatican-archbishop-featured-in-homoerotic-painting-he-commissioned/

    Talk about a thriving clericalism and the Real Prurience!

    During this month of June, when the papal prayer intention is “families,” we might recall that Paglia is president of the reoriented and renamed Pontifical Pope John Paul II Institute for Studies on Marriage and Family.

    • What a fascinating train of thought. Zero in on a comment about a work of art, jump the tracks to some completely different work of art, and proceed to complain about that work and a clergyman connected with it.

      Isn’t there some other combox somewhere where critical comments about persons and works that are not featured in this documentary would be more appropriate?

      Alternatively, positive reflections relating to the Blessed Sacrament, the Mass, and Eucharistic adoration would at least be closer to the topic.

    • Peter,
      Some folks are simply clueless, almost destitute in their pride-ful self-defense as to be almost without hope. NO, the words and thought are not of you. I trust you to carry on with your enlightened enlightenments, always pleasantly diversionary and charitable while stunning in depth. Your words are like swimming, discovering that one is safe in deep water since you’ve earlier pulled out the sharks and displayed them on land.

  2. Mr. Greydanus sees a monstrance of twisted wood as Gandolph’s staff in another movie.

    Others see the wooden monstrance as a serpent sinuously twined about a tree in the first garden. Others see the wooden monstrance shaped like a cross, upon which the Body of Christ has been sacrificed, on Calvary.

    • It seems to me not unreasonable to see in Gandalf’s wooden staff some kind of dim echo of the wood of the cross. To begin with, what looks like a sign of weakness (“an old man’s prop”) is actually a source of light and strength.

      Gandalf, along with Aragorn and Frodo, corresponds in a way to the threefold titles of Christ as, respectively, prophet, king, and priest. Gandalf’s staff, like a bishop’s crozier which is symbolically connected to the cross of Jesus, signifies both protection and guidance.

      The staff is penetrated by Gandalf’s power and is an instrument of such salvation as he is capable of. In a not entirely dissimilar way, as St. Thomas points out, the wood of the cross was penetrated by and mingled with the blood of Jesus, in which is the power of our salvation.

  3. I read somewhere that a Protestant said that if it was really true that Jesus Christ descends on the altar during the Consecration, that he would convert and crawl on his knees to get to Mass to receive Him. Because most Catholics have not been taught to believe, truly believe and be in awe of the miracle that happens at every valid Mass, the world goes on in ignorance, along with most Catholics. There is no point in going to Mass if Christ does not become truly present during the Consecration: why bother?

  4. The Eucharist is the essence and true purpose of the Mass. Intellectual thoughts and discussions, will not essentially reveal the miracle of the Eucharist. It has to come from your heart, and from your inner soul. True devotion reveals the absolute miracle of the Eucharist to oneself.

  5. Thanks, Steven, for a very insightful and readable film review. One doubts that any of your critics could provide such a literate and informative account.

    As regards our beloved Holy Eucharist: am always amazed at how we Catholics are worthy of a Nobel prize for MAJORING IN INCIDENTALS.

    Our King, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, told us plainly that in Him, God was transforming absolutely everything that had been assumed to be right religion (“You have heard, but I tell you . . . “). At His last Passover supper, Jesus formalized this filling out of the old by the new as God’s NEW Covenant with humanity.

    From Adam until the Apocalypse there has been and will not ever be anything to compare with this. Many billions of years of our universe (physical, biological, psychological, sociological) hinge on this one event. This is where all meaning resides.

    So disappointing that we never discus the unparalleled wonders of Christ’s New Covenant. He draws us together in His Broken Body that actualizes total obedience to Father God and in His Shed Life Blood that actualizes the maximum of self-giving love; all under His own headship and rule. God’s unique gift to humankind: incorporation in the Only Begotten Son of God and son of Our Most Blessed Mother Mary.

    Why do we allow the enemy to distract us from dwelling on these essentials?

    Take care everyone; stay safe. Always in the love of The Lamb; blessings from marty

  6. Good movie review. You should check out “2,000 Mules.” D’Souza’s a hack, but he finally managed to make something good!

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