Sepa: Our Lord of Miracles Review: A Multi-Faceted Portrait of an Open-Air Penal Colony

Walter Saxer’s restrained and observational approach also proves disarmingly compassionate.

Sepa: Our Lord of Miracles
Photo: Dekanalog

The long-unseen 1986 documentary Sepa: Our Lord of Miracles is the sole directorial effort of Walter Saxer, a prolific producer who collaborated with Werner Herzog on the latter’s Aguirre, the Wrath of God and Fitzcarraldo, among others. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the film also takes place in the dense wilds of the Peruvian Amazon rainforest.

Our Lord of Miracles greets us with images of a small enclave of people living peacefully away from civilization, bursting into joyful song and dance from time to time. This is an environment that may seem at first blush like paradise on Earth, but the seeming idyll of these images is undermined by the true nature of these people’s secluded pseudo-village. Sepa, as the denizens call it, is in actuality an experimental penal colony, with its population consisting of hardened criminals who were transferred at random from notoriously brutal prisons in Lima.

Saxer’s approach to documenting these criminals is deceptively simple. Throughout, the subjects speak freely about their experiences, offering a multitude of perspectives and opinions. And through these dialogues, a rich portrait of Sepa emerges, where boundaries are consistently blurred—such as those separating criminals and law enforcement, and freedom and imprisonment. The latter is adeptly articulated by the contrast between the feelings expressed by an ex-pat American incarcerated in Sepa and those of his fellow prisoners.


To the American, Sepa—which is located in such a remote area of the Amazon that prisoners are allowed to move about freely and tend to their own plot of land—has given him a sense of personal fulfillment, to the point where he praises the colony. But, conversely, others speak of their frustration at being abandoned by their home country as they toil around Sepa and await freedom, caught in bureaucratic limbo. Throughout, this unconventional prison remains something of an enigma, fascinatingly resisting easy definition. As Our Lord of Miracles effectively shows, Sepa is at once one person’s paradise and another person’s purgatory.

Saxer’s observational approach also proves disarmingly compassionate. By simply allowing the criminals to candidly relay their experiences and private feelings for the camera, the filmmaker makes plain that most of them are at the mercy of a legal system that’s both ambivalent to their recuperation and seemingly has no qualms with doling out punishment.

To hear Sepa’s populace tell it, the guards that patrol Lima’s most infamously treacherous prisons, such as Sexto and Lurigancho, are capable of such cruelty that they’re essentially criminals themselves. Our Lord of Miracles reveals just how quietly daring it is by giving unfettered voice to the most extreme of society’s outcasts. And in this sense, it’s not the unorthodox prison Saxer details that becomes the most memorable aspect of the film, but the generous sympathy he extends to ostensibly unsavory individuals.

 Director: Walter Saxer  Screenwriter: Walter Saxer, Mario Vargas Llosa  Distributor: Dekanalog  Running Time: 79 min  Rating: NR  Year: 1986

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