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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