Raw Faith opens on a Unitarian minister delivering a sermon of surprising common sense, kindness, even beauty, and you can immediately grasp the gratitude of her rapt congregation. It's clear within a few moments that Marilyn Sewell is probably one of those ministers who understands the ideal potential of organized religion as an instrument of providing some sort of solace from the chaos born of comprehending so little of the laws of existence. Sewell understands that the macrocosmic question—the big existential riddle of why we are here—can best be addressed by confronting the microcosm that's made up of the little details that come to define our lives, such as tales of romantic misunderstanding, or of the family members who continue to haunt us.
If Raw Faith were just a story of an unusually successful female senior minister and her effect on a growing Portland, Oregon church it would be worth seeing for its unusual tact and taste. The director, Peter Wiedensmith, works in a straightforward manner that's appropriate to Sewell's sermons, and he doesn't juxtapose images or interviews in such a matter as to skew the documentary into a typical debate over belief. Raw Faith is as pared as Sewell's sermons, as there doesn't seem to be a misplaced or gratuitous moment in the entire film. Wiedensmith's methods aren't as cinematic as they could be, but even this seems to ably mirror Sewell's humility.
Yet the doc isn't just that story; it's also a jarring portrait of a person who could fit the classic mold of the tortured artist. Sewell, who expresses her personal thoughts to the camera as directly as she voices her sermons on Sunday, is a driven careerist with obsessive work habits and who's basically estranged from her two grown sons—a development that somewhat parallels Sewell's own issues with her alcoholic father and mentally unbalanced mother, both now deceased. Sewell, divorced for years, has sealed herself off from conventional society, focusing instead on reading and writing in addition to being there for her church members. As Sewell hauntingly points out at one point, what most people really want is for someone to "simply be present"—a need, and a void, that she grasps firsthand.
Raw Faith acknowledges an aspect of loneliness that many film are too sentimental to face, which is that most traditional working-class people have a certain amount of control over their own fate, or more specifically, the social structure of their lives, and that less "just happens to them" than they're willing to face. Sewell's self-consciousness and awareness are remarkable, and clearly partially the sources of her inspired career as a minister, but they are also instruments that allow her to imprison herself, to rationalize happiness as a partial myth she doesn't deserve to experience. Sewell, about halfway through the film, describes a dream that speaks of her self-loathing and guilt and feelings of inadequacy with shocking clarity. In the dream, she's on a plane, she would like a cold drink, and she's just certain that the attendant won't notice, passing her by.
Raw Faith's portrayal of a person terrified and disgusted by what they see in their reflection is one of the most emotionally accurate and empathetic documentaries I've seen in years. The second half, however, is somewhat disappointingly commonplace, as it details Sewell's attempts to construct more of a conventional life, and so the film, perhaps unavoidably, starts to feel, well, conventional, as it begins to trade in the life-affirming clichés that the first half effectively avoids. Yet Sewell remains an intriguing figure throughout, an embodiment of the idea that destiny might be the biggest of all myths, a trick of avoiding the more-than-occasionally extreme task of coming to see yourself with unfettered clarity.