The premiere of God’s Army and the subsequent brief flowering and fading of Mormon Cinema coincided with a particular moment in my intellectual development. When I saw the movie, I had just returned from my mission, and the existence of a film that was about missionaries but not produced by the Church blew my mind. Right about the time that Brigham City came out I had re-enrolled at BYU and discovered literature by Mormon authors like Doug Thayer and Dean Hughes. I’m fairly certain I saw that movie, read Under the Cottonwoods, and attended a production of Eric Samuelsen’s Peculiarities all within a few short months. I loved the fact that aspects of Church culture could be explored through literature and film, and I made watching Mormon films a priority. Some were much better than others—but in my mind the varied quality was simply a reflection of similar issues in the general film marketplace. Most movies produced every year are mediocre at best and some are downright offensive; the fact that a certain percentage of Mormon movies are mediocre and offensive should not be surprising. I still think that The R.M. was the Gigli of Mormon Cinema, and if Ben Affleck can bounce back, then Mormon cinema can also.
It has been years now since I watched a Mormon movie; the last one I watched was The Errand of Angels on DVD about 4 years ago and I was pleasantly surprised by how good it was. This feeling of surprise, however, is dangerous. It means that “Mormon cinema” has acquired a connotation of lowered expectations and assumptions of poor production values and lousy acting. I have noticed this same reaction around the Internet during the last month since the debut of The Saratov Approach: many reviewers have expressed surprise at the film’s quality. When I saw it a few weeks ago I had the same reaction—it’s a very well-made film that shouldn’t even be in the same category as films like Church Ball. This is what I wanted to avoid in talking about the movie—the “pretty good for a …” review. At the same time, however, when reviewing a work of art I think it is helpful to understand the context in which it was made. I saw The Saratov Approach on the same day that I also watched Captain Phillips, which is essentially the same movie, only made with a much bigger budget, a more experienced director, and a big-name actor.
I mostly agree with Kevin Burtt’s assessment of the film over at LDS Cinema Online. The hand-held establishing shots of a train passing through an obviously Eastern European setting (location shooting took place in Ukraine), the perfectly matched instrumental score, and the naturalistic acting by the two leads caught my attention within the first few minutes. I was impressed with the director’s control of pacing and ability to make a fairly straightforward story suspenseful. He resisted the urge to enlarge the plot or to heighten the tension artificially—despite my knowledge that the missionaries would escape, I was still curious about how that would happen and what kinds of choices they would make that would preserve both their physical and spiritual integrity. Like Burtt, I found myself with more questions than answers at the end of the film; however, I have always thought that the mark of a good work of narrative is a certain degree of ambiguity. Mormon cinema in the past has often suffered from heavy-handed applications of moral lessons and I think this film takes a big step in a better, more naturalistic direction.
By way of comparison, and to satisfy my own curiosity, I decided to watch God’s Army the other night so I could compare the two films. It has been at least a decade since I last watched the movie and I didn’t remember a lot about it. There is still a lot to admire about the film, but I kept feeling like Dutcher was making a movie about missionaries and missionary work in general, rather than a story about one particular missionary. Yes, there is the main storyline about Elder Allen and his relationship with Elder Dalton, but there were so many other things thrown in there. Dutcher includes a number of references to missionary tropes, Church-related cultural knowledge, and inside jokes that Mormons will only get. The film feels a bit overstuffed and unfocused, and the ending relies on a particular strain of thought in Mormon culture: if sacrifice is good, greater sacrifice is better. It’s good to serve a mission when you aren’t sure about your testimony and your stepdad is in prison. But, it’s even better to serve a mission when you are an older convert who dropped out of medical school and is dying of a brain tumor. The other missionaries all look up to Elder Dalton, not just because he is older and wiser, but because he is the embodiment of a level of sacrifice they can never hope to attain. The Saratov Approach brings up this idea of sacrifice quite a bit but skirts around the question of whether the missionaries would have been remembered in quite the same way if they had been killed by their captors. While Elder Dalton in God’s Army, and his mission president along with most of the other characters, thinks that dying as a missionary is the ultimate sacrifice, Elders Tuttle and Propst and their parents question this belief. As I mentioned earlier, I prefer this sort of ambiguity and questioning. The Saratov Approach asks questions about the will of God, what it means to consider all mankind as children of God, and the appropriate way to respond when we are victims of violence. It doesn’t answer all these questions and I think it is a stronger movie because of that. I hope that it can serve as a model for future filmmakers who are thinking about resurrecting Mormon cinema.