Liborio review – fascinating account of a true-life Dominican folk hero

A faith healer in the Dominican Republic falls foul of the US in this arresting, ambiguous drama

Here’s a striking and mysterious debut from the Dominican Republic, where film-maker Nino Martínez Sosa recounts a fascinating true-life story of occupation and resistance from the turn of the last century. Olivorio Mateo was a peasant and faith healer who became known to his disciples as Papa Liborio; he built a self-sufficient community in the mountains. But when US forces occupied in the 1910s, Liborio was branded a bandit, and killed.

Not that you’d know any of the historical facts from watching this, which is set squarely in the arthouse endurance-test genre: there is little to no scene-setting or explainers, with the kind of pacing often euphemistically described by critics as “deliberate”. It begins after Liborio vanishes from his village during a hurricane, presumed dead. When he is found alive, he claims to have returned from God with healing powers and takes a band of followers up into the mountains.

Is he a charlatan? Madman? Or simply an inspirational community leader? Director Sosa’s answer seems to be that the truth is unknowable. So he tells the story through the eyes of six believers, beginning with Liborio’s son. But the most moving is from the perspective of a woman who begs Liborio to bring back her infant child from the dead. A powerfully charismatic leading performance by Vicente Santos is the force of gravity here. He plays Liborio as an ambiguous character: sometimes he seems high on a messiah complex; at others his spirituality feels genuine. In the end he becomes a tragic hero. Santos’s performance is a reminder that awards season only dishes out gongs to a small corner of the film-making world.

Liborio is shot very simply, using handheld cinematography that gives it a modern feel, and the soundtrack is alive with the sounds of nature. There’s an especially good moment when an American commander is trying to sleep. This is a man who calls Liborio a “witch doctor” and rides into the community vowing to instil law and order (a quick glance around would tell him this is a model community). A mosquito buzzes around his bed, an intruder and unwanted, much like himself.

• ​Liborio is available on 26 January on Mubi.


Cath Clarke

The GuardianTramp

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