Liborio (2021) opens in the bush. A heavy curtain of Caribbean rain falls over thick tropical foliage.1 A Black man (Vicente Santos) pulls on a braying donkey—heard and not seen—before he arrives at a cave where he remains for some time before disappearing, literally, from the screen.2 The man is Olivorio Mateo, known also as Papá Liborio, who was an Afro-Dominican spiritual healer. For over a decade, Liborio attracted a following of impoverished and marginalized Afro-Dominicans eager to receive medicinal and spiritual care. When the island-occupying US Marines ordered his assassination, with the support of local Dominican elites, they presumed that it would be the end of his following. Instead, Liborio’s legacy strengthened, and Liborismo endures to this day.
Directed by Nino Martínez Sosa, the feature-length film portrays Liborio’s historical disappearance and eventual reappearance during the hurricane of 1908 from the perspective of his followers. They had presumed him dead and upon his return believed that he had ascended to heaven only to return with healing powers. Set before Liborio’s 1922 assassination, the film refuses to represent Liborismo as either ethnography or horror, two common portrayals of non-European, specifically Afro-Caribbean religious practices. Instead, the film emphasizes the earth-boundedness that becomes extraordinary for another reason: it binds these Afro-Dominicans to their land. Within this context of a history that knows no border between Haiti and the Dominican Republic, Liborio sprouted like an unruly tentacle of Black subterfuge that neither national nor imperial histories could tame.3
Though Liborio intimates this historical context, Sosa makes the surprising choice to focus the film on the commune itself. He states that he wanted to create a film that “preserve[d] collective memories.”4 This profound respect for the memories of Liborio’s followers, and their belief that Liborio was indeed a prophet, grounds the film. It refuses and renders irrelevant any viewer’s potential desire to see “evidence” of Liborio’s powers. Through his followers, we access a belief system that, though revolving around the figure of a single man, is perhaps better understood as a mode of living in the world through Black self-subsistence. Their desire to simply live in community with other Afro-Dominicans and away from the centers of capitalism and the nation-state constituted, and continues to constitute, a considerable threat to the very foundations of colonialism in the Americas—and, perhaps, the “modern” world itself. Indeed, perpetual alienation from land has defined Blackness in the Americas. The denial of claims to Indigeneity, as well the blocking from property ownership, have relegated Black people throughout the Americas to a relationship with land defined by subservience and labor.
The film refuses to represent Liborismo as either ethnography or horror, two common portrayals of non-European, specifically Afro-Caribbean, religious practices.