The film begins with a slow pan of a city, a hectic metropolis indistinguishable from its brethren around the world. But then the camera picks up a multi-spired building, a one-of-a-kind structure that tells us immediately where we are. The building is Barcelona's La Sagrada Familia, a cathedral once seen, never forgotten.
La Sagrada's architect, the visionary Antonio Gaudí, has been the subject of documentary films before (most notably 1984's "Antonio Gaudí" by Japanese director Hiroshi Teshigahara). But this film is the first to concentrate on Gaudí's masterpiece, still unfinished after more than 125 years of construction.
Directed by Switzerland's Stefan Haupt in a deliberate, unforced manner, "Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation" takes a satisfying three-pronged approach to this unique structure: visual, historical and reportorial. (Haupt's idea of having a symbolic figure appear from time to time on screen is more confusing than satisfying, but fortunately the appearances are brief and infrequent.)
La Sagrada is always going to be a spectacular building, but cinematographer Patrick Lindenmaier does an especially fine job of showing us the play of light in the cathedral's enveloping interiors.
The history of La Sagrada, related by narrator Hanspeter Müller-Drossaart and various interview subjects, is a complicated one.
The building's foundation stone was laid in 1882, and Gaudí, something of a mystic as well as an architect, took over soon after. "A Catalan through and through" and someone who believed "only God creates," he was inspired in part, as footage reveals, by the mountainous setting of the monastery of Montserrat, a Catalan holy place.
Funds for the cathedral were always lacking, and Gaudí himself would often go begging door to door in Barcelona for money. In fact, when he was fatally hit by a streetcar in 1926, he was so poorly dressed he was taken to a hospital for the poor and homeless.
Things got even worse for La Sagrada during the Spanish Civil War, when almost all of Gaudí's plans were burned and his plaster models smashed in an excess of anti-clerical zeal.
But the remarkable thing about this building is that no one gave up on it, ever. As one of today's workers puts it, "We are Catalan. We owe it to him to finish this temple and show his genius to the world."
It is these interviews with the people who are working on the building in the here and now that are the most involving parts of "Sagrada." Almost to a person, from architect Jordi Bonet, the third generation of his family to be involved, to ordinary workers, everyone feels part of a spiritual cause, not a construction project.
Perhaps the film's most compelling interviewee is Japanese sculptor Etsuro Sotoo, at work for more than 30 years. When he started, he was a committed Zen Buddhist, but he converted to Catholicism to better understand the wellsprings of Gaudí's vision and is now part of a movement petitioning to have the architect declared a saint. Such is La Sagrada's power.
Though it is now one of Barcelona's top tourist attractions, the structure continues to face obstacles, including a high-speed subway train whose tunnel is scheduled to run directly below the building, leading to the threat of vibrations that could damage the cathedral.
That many of the people involved with La Sagrada will not live to see it finished seems to bother no one. "God is not in a hurry," is how one person puts it. "The important thing is not finishing it, but building it."
'Sagrada: The Mystery of Creation'
No MPAA rating.
Running time: 1 hour, 34 minutes