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What’s the place of folklore within “official history”? Even in the most nuanced of depictions, the latter’s vertical relationship with those considered “the other” has long perpetuated a reluctance to fully engage with their customs. These communities have been kept at an observer’s distance, within frame but without a voice.
In Liborio, the feature-length debut of director Nino Martínez Sosa, there’s no place for those kinds of distinctions. Unlike most period pieces, the interest it has in its central figure goes beyond traditional revisionist tribute or iconoclasm, committing instead to an immersive evocation of communal myth-making.
The film’s namesake comes from the historical figure of Papá Liborio, an early 20th-century Dominican brujo (witch doctor), messianic leader, and revolutionary who rallied the farmers of San Juan de la Maguana around his spiritual guidance, and established a commune deep in the tropical fields of the southern Dominican Republic. Targeted by the urban elites as a subversive threat due to their collective resistance to the 1915 invasion by the United States, the legend of Liborio and his followers has grown to become an effigy of popular revolt.
Martínez Sosa’s rendering wholly inhabits Liborio’s fable, framing his triumphant return to galvanize his fellow countrymen after being presumed dead during a hurricane as part of an unwritten prophecy, while approaching the extent of his spiritual knowledge and natural healing power with palpable awe. The film opts to embrace the personal retellings of how his presence had an impact on those close to him, letting its protagonist’s ineffable aura wash over the work and define its formal identity.
Structurally, Martínez Sosa borrows from oral tradition to evoke the folk tales at the core of Papá Liborio’s story. There are seven chronological chapters that make up the narrative, each one taking a different perspective from the roster of characters that surround the man born as Olivorio Mateo Ledesma. In each one of them his essence is deeply felt, yet rarely showcased.
His prophetic tirades echo through the jungle as they overcome the oppressive tropical soundscapes, but they’re always experienced through the wonder of an onlooker. Here, the miracles that would be center stage in a more conventional endeavor are no more than passing vignettes, framed from the viewpoint of those kneeling in devotion and professing their faith to a man who they saw as the only pathway to escape exploitation. For Matilde (Karina Valdez), her allegiance means playing an active role as the evangelizer of Liborio’s gospel; the chanteuse who always starts the devotional cries. Popa (Ramón Emilio Candelario) sees his place as the prophet’s chief lieutenant as the force at frontlines, the one who secures by force the commune’s hold on their sovereignty. Eleuterio (Anderson Mojica) is the outsider who tries to vindicate himself and excise his personal demons by virtue of being close to this saintly figure. Barely represented as a full-fledged individual, the idea of Liborio is built from the sum of these inconsistent, and at times contradictory, portrayals, something mirrored by the film’s audiovisual approach.
Through Oscar Durán’s hand-held cinematography the silhouette of lead actor Vicente Santos often looms in the background as a reminder of the corporeal effect his presence has on others; the clumsy clash between bodies trying to get closer to a sermon; the ecstatic liberation by way of dance, as hips and feet synchronize with the hypnotizing rhythms of the never-ending carabiné soundtrack. Amidst the film’s increasingly violent confrontations, these snapshots of tangible communion are what holds everything together; a choral retelling that mimics the customs of Dominican folk music in its intersection of expressive recitation, political urgency, and spiritual fervor.
At heart, Nino Martínez Sosa’s Liborio exists as an audiovisual embodiment of its central myth. A multi-generational utterance of dissent, it creates a new, lasting testament to an undying tale of autonomy and liberation.
Liborio (2021) screens on May 2 and May 12 via Film at Lincoln Center’s virtual cinema, as part of New Directors/New Films.