Angie is a young woman with epilepsy who has returned back to the small town where she has grown up. Grieving over the loss of her brother and alienated from the world around her, she becomes intrigued by a mysterious woman she sees in a restaurant — so intrigued that she forgets to take her medication, much to the chagrin of her nurse and caretaker.
After a brief conversation with the woman, named Nicole, and falling ill from the effects of not taking medication, Angie heads to the outskirts of town with Nicole and her friend. But then Angie finds herself taken to a very strange house in the middle of nowhere, where she enters an underworld driven by the strange visions of her epilepsy — and exits with a transcendent sense of wonder and peace.
Writer-director Erica Scoggins’s artful, mesmerizing drama is a profoundly quiet film, less concerned with telling a linear story than capturing the unique subjectivity of a medical condition, the peculiar airlessness of grief and isolation and the strange way desire and fascination can suture the fragmented pieces of an existence together.
The meditative pace and beautiful, evocative images are given time and space to be lingered over, allowing for an arrestingly sensory cinematic experience. The cinematography has a muted yet weathered feel, which captures a small-town feel of lost Americana, immune to the currents of modern life.
There’s also a richly saturated sound design that seems to capture the heaviness and humidity of the air, as well as the particularly intense way Angie experiences life. As a result of its richly sensuous emphasis, the film feels very much like a series of photographs come to life, connected by a thread of character and mystery, rather than a narrative thread of cause and effect.
The narrative isn’t the primary engine here, though there’s enough concreteness of character and dialogue to build some story scaffolding for viewers to hold onto. But Angie’s drift through the story slowly unearths the cause of her discombobulation and grief, as well as its connection to her epilepsy. At the story’s key turn, Angie drifts into a kind of purgatory, and what is concrete reality versus what is gifted by her brain’s seizures begins to blur. But in the strange liminal spaces between incidents, images and movement, she finds a fragile, tenuous beauty and relief.
In many ways, “The Sacred Disease” evokes the work of current auteurs like Scottish director Lynne Ramsey, who create visually driven films where each frame and image holds a peculiar weight and power. It leverages all the tools of cinematic craft to create a genuine artwork, capturing a unique state of mind and body in an attempt to put viewers into the dreamspace of a character and experience, and causes us to question the line between the explainable and the ethereal.
Here, it’s temporal lobe epilepsy, which gives many of its sufferers almost otherworldly seizures. But “The Sacred Disease” also asks its audience to look beyond the so-called suffering and treats these mind-states as different yet almost spiritual sources of self-knowledge and experience. It suggests that comfort, meaning and even magic can come from all kinds of places, even from the deepest and most chaotic mysteries within ourselves.