Monday, December 15, 2014

Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation, Still in Progress

It could very well have been St. Joseph himself who miraculously constructed the Loretto Chapel’s circular staircase in Santa Fe, but strictly speaking, he was a carpenter. That leaves Antoni Gaudí in pretty exclusive company as a beautified architect. One hundred thirty years after it first broke ground, his life defining project continues to be erected in Barcelona. Stefan Haupt follows the progress and meditates on the significance of the already imposing cathedral in Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation (trailer here), which opens this Friday in New York.

Originally commissioned in 1882, the Order of St. Joseph hired Gaudí to take control of the unwieldy project a year later. Known for his devout Catholicism and wholly distinctive style, Gaudí was an inspired but slightly risky choice. Throughout his final years, he lived and breathed the Sagrada Familia, even though he knew he would never live to see its completion. He hoped to see the Nativity façade finished, but tragically succumbed to injuries sustained from a tram accident. For a while, his assistant Domènech Sugranyes carried on in his stead, until the macro events of the Twentieth Century temporarily halted the project.

Haupt does a nice job chronicling the various phases of construction, but his cast of talking head experts are suspiciously concise when discussing the effects of the Spanish Civil War. Evidently, when the Loyalists were burning churches, they also destroyed all of Gaudí’s plans and scale models that they could find, leaving the Sugranyes and his fellow architects in absolute disarray, but they were good leftists, so let’s not discuss it.

Still, Haupt and the current architectural team clearly understand the Ken Follett-like sweep of the project. For many, it represents not just faith in God and his church, but a faith that succeeding generations would finish the work they started. Obviously, the final Sagrada Familia will be necessarily different from what Gaudí originally conceived, which is a burden and an opportunity for several contemporary artists working on its decorative elements. Easily the most eloquent is Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, who converted to Catholicism while working on the Sagrada Familia. In fact, there are a number of Japanese connections to the cathedral, such as Hiroshi Teshigahara, who previously documented an earlier period of construction in his film Antonio Gaudí (also opening this Friday).

At times, Haupt asks (or implies) some spot on questions, like what do contemporary Christians build if we no longer erect cathedrals? Of course, his trump card is the Sagrada Familia itself. It is a stunning sight, perhaps even more so when juxtaposed against the modern secular cranes supporting its raise into the heavens. It would be hard to make it look prosaic, but Haupt and cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier find particularly cinematic angles for some truly dramatic visual compositions.

On the other hand, Haupt forces an artificially surreal note into the film when he stages brief scenes of dancer Anna Huber posing amid the half-constructed interiors. Regardless, it still serves as a thoughtful overview, primer, and guided tour of what has already become Barcelona’s most popular tourist attraction. Sometimes religion and architecture can actually draw a crowd. Recommended for Gaudí admirers, Sagrada: the Mystery of Creation opens this Friday (12/19) in New York, at the Elinor Bunin Munroe Film Center.