The Errand of Angels (official site, IMDB) was originally titled Diary of a Sister Missionary and is, in fact, just that: a personal journal brought to life of Sister Taylor, an LDS sister serving a mission in Austria. It is based largely on the experiences of writer Heidi Johnson who herself served in Austria in 1993, and directed by Austrian native Christian Vuissa (Baptists at our Barbecue).
Errand stars Erin Chambers who — quoting from my article on The Singles 2nd Ward — is “an easy winner for the prettiest and most personable girl to appear in any Church film to date”. Errand also stars Rachel Emmers who — quoting from my States of Grace article — “would be absolutely perfect — in looks, personality, everything — in a role as a LDS sister missionary”…and here gets to play a fellow LDS sister missionary. So, at the very least, The Errand of Angels is well cast.
Filmed on location in Austria, Errand features some great scenic vistas. Errand also deserves praise for being bold enough to have most of the film be in German with subtitles (without pretending that people in foreign countries speak accented English to each other all the time as some films do). German is the sisters’ mission language, and they speak it most of the time. I don’t know how much time Erin, Rachel, and the others had to spend learning the dialogue in German, but they all sound convincingly “missionary fluent” in their delivery, which aids in the authentic atmosphere of the movie.
The Errand of Angels is pleasant and has a good heart, but ends up being too idealistic and shallow for its own good. It compares poorly with the other two primary films about missionary work (The Best Two Years and God’s Army), and doesn’t take advantage of the fact that the main characters are sister missionaries in examining how their missionary experience differs from the elders.
Let’s look at the film more closely:
One of the biggest problems Errand has is the lack of a true narrative. We get a series of missionary experiences strung together with very little structure or progression, and only a hint of a true character arc for our heroine. True, real missions don’t usually have (nor need) a ‘narrative’. (Mine certainly didn’t, and I’m sure Heidi Johnson’s didn’t, either).
Movies, however, do have a fundamental need for structure, and the lack of one calls into question the utility of making a film based on only a loose set of missionary experiences in the first place. Both The Best Two Years and God’s Army managed to make authentic movies about missionary work while still containing standard narrative structures, including appropriate resolutions. However, the primary impression when Errand ends (somewhat abruptly) is how many stray threads are left without closure.
As an example, early on we are introduced to Sister Taylor’s second companion Sister Keller, who collects rocks. “Why do you collect rocks?” asks Sister Taylor. Sister Keller does not answer.
In a later scene, we see (in significant close-ups) rocks being placed on gravestones followed by Sister Taylor being given a rock as a present from a friendly passer-by (who mistakenly believes she is in the graveyard mourning someone’s passing). Later still, another sister missionary whom had previously served with Sister Keller gives to Sister Taylor in a charitable and meaningful fashion more rocks to take back to add to Sister Keller’s collection.
At this point, the film has set things up for a meaningful reveal of the significance of rocks later in the film. Are they involved with mourning in Austria in some context? If so, what do they signify? Has Sister Keller, perhaps, suffered a tragedy in her life and has an emotional need to collect rocks in honor of a departed friend or family member?
We never know. Instead, we get a voice-over at the end from Sister Taylor saying, “I never did find out why Sister Keller collected rocks…”
Say what? Then, *why* spend all the camera time emphasizing rocks in the first place if there was never going to be a payoff? Whether this was based on a true experience or not, the filmmakers would be wise to remember the axiom of writing by famous playwright Anton Chekhov who said that if you show a gun in the first act, it’d sure as heck better be fired before the end of the third. Movies have basic rules associated with them that filmmakers ignore at their peril.
Idealism is not, we should note, bad by any means. It’s perfectly fine to have ideals, but only if they still remain tied to reality. The Errand of Angels paints a rosy portrait of missionary work — even in terms of “challenges” that missionaries face — and never hints at anything deeper or more complicated. I found Errand to be fairly shallow as a result with little spiritual depth, although your mileage may vary.
In one scene, Sister Taylor contacts (by herself) a man in his late 20’s/early 30’s who invites her to come over to his place the following night. Given the man’s relative youth (and the fact he was talking to, you know, Erin Chambers) there was the obvious implication that he may have been interested in something other than the gospel. There’s no hint in the movie, however, that the sisters even considered this possibility, nor the option (since the guy appears to be single) of it being more appropriate to give the reference to the local elders to visit instead.
True to the movie’s idealism, he turns out to be married and on the level in terms of wanting to meet with them as missionaries rather than as attractive American women, but the movie avoids any hint that the sisters’ would ever want to be a little more circumspect when making casual appointments with men who may have ulterior motives. Is that realistic?
At another point in the movie, Sister Taylor and Sister Keller have an argument about their investigator — a young woman who meets with them secretly so her family won’t find out. The first time she meets her, Sister Taylor invites her to be baptized, which she accepts. Sister Keller says that’s a mistake. Sister Taylor asks why: if someone says yes to a baptismal invite, that means they’re ready to be baptized, right? (Wrong.) Sister Keller says she’s the more experienced senior companion (correct) and she knows the investigator better than Sister Taylor does (correct) and that she’s not ready to be baptized.
At the next meeting, they tell the investigator that she needs to come to church a few more times before she can be baptized. The investigator seems disappointed, and Sister Taylor is unhappy. Sister Keller remarks (correctly) that if she’s really prepared to be baptized, coming to church for a few more weeks shouldn’t be a problem.
Guess what? At this point, I’m clearly on Sister Keller’s side here, although the movie itself doesn’t seem to be. The investigator then stops meeting with the missionaries (which would seem to prove Sister Keller correct, although this is never acknowledged by Sister Taylor or the movie in general). Sister Taylor’s “challenge” for the next section of the film is to learn to love her companion (with the implication being, ‘…even though she is wrong.’)
Sister Keller wasn’t ‘wrong’. Baptism is not the be-all-end-all purpose of missionary work — conversion is. Errand’s idealism appears to run contrary to reality, where post-baptism inactivity is high, and converts should not be rushed into baptism, especially when two or three weeks of church attendance should be a small challenge to overcome given that you expect converts to be attending church several hundred times more in the future…
As another dropped plot point, this investigator is never seen or heard from again, but does that mean the movie ends up being sympathetic to Sister Keller’s position (or at least ambivalent as to who is ‘right’)? Given that the movie ends with another baptism — a different person that Sister Taylor had also quickly and impulsively invited to be baptized — the movie seems to be implying that Sister Taylor’s attitude towards missionary work is the correct one. That’s certainly an idealistic position to take, although I suspect most real sister missionaries would agree with me that reality is usually far different…
Answers to Spiritual Questions
In its depiction of missionary work, Errand doesn’t even remotely try to tackle any serious issues.
An investigator shares the concern that “how can there really be a loving God if there’s so much evil and suffering in the world?” The sisters don’t have a response.
Another investigator family shares their belief that lots of people can be “prophets” and the word of God can be found everywhere — no specific church required. The sisters don’t have a response.
Another investigator shares their belief that the Bible and only the Bible contains the word of God. The sisters…don’t have a response.
C’mon movie, you’ve got to *try* harder than that. Viewers deserve at least some attempt to present deeper gospel answers in some context. Understanding and resolving concerns is fundamentally what being a missionary is about. The Errand of Angels contains very little what would be considered deep spiritual thought.
(At one point, Sister Taylor becomes frustrated and asks her companion, “Why won’t our investigators get baptized? Why is no one listening to us? What are we doing wrong?” Her companion…wait for it…doesn’t have a response.)
Erin Chambers is, as you might expect, in every scene in the movie, and still has enough screen presence to make those scenes worthwhile; however, she is hamstrung by the fact that her character just isn’t very deep, with very little “character” for her to explore. Rachel Emmers, normally a very charismatic actress, comes across as muted here, also straddled with a character that doesn’t seem to have much to say about anything. When the two of them are together — only a small part of the film — it seems that those two dynamic actresses should sparkle more than they do. The writing doesn’t seem to give them much to work with. (Sister Keller is by far the most interesting character in the film…and she’s portrayed as the “villain”!)
The Errand of Angels is another missed opportunity in the LDS genre. There’s still a lot of potential for dramatic films based on missionary work, especially involving the sister missionary perspective. I just wish Errand recognized the depth inherent in the subject matter, and had a willingness to explore it.
Final Grade: C+
Additional Comments and Analysis:
(1) One unexplored area in the life of a sister missionary that a deeper, more robust film on the subject might have explored involves the often fragile and troubled relationships between sister missionaries and the elders they serve with who are (a) younger, (b) often much less mature, and (c) still outrank them in the mission hierarchy. In Errand the elders are completely invisible.
(2) Bad Missionary Work: In addition to the seeming reluctance to discuss any kind of concern with their investigators as mentioned above, the sisters do something equally questionable. They drop by the apartment of one of their female investigators and discover that she had forgotten about their appointment, and had invited her boyfriend over. The sisters are embarrassed and cut the discussion short before leaving, even though the investigator and her boyfriend were already sitting down across from them in a friendly manner ready to go.
Why not, you know, take the opportunity to teach BOTH of them the gospel right then? (The sisters ask, “Did you read the assigned scriptures from last week?” The investigator says no. Why not counter immediately with, “Then how about we read them together RIGHT NOW!” Of all the times for Sister Taylor to suddenly forget about her bold approach to missionary work…)
(3) Plot Hole: There’s a confusing scene where Sister Taylor takes umbrage over Sister Keller’s reluctance to go knock doors, so she goes knocking a series of apartment doors herself. As she faces rejection after rejection, her demeanor changes from enthusiastic to desperation as nobody listens.
That’s fine…except for the fact that Sister Keller was *not* Sister Taylor’s first companion. Given that her first companionship didn’t appear to have many investigators, there would have been *plenty* of opportunities for Sister Taylor to go tracting in her first area (we even see them doing it at the beginning of the movie), and thus already have plenty of experience being rejected. The idea that Sister Taylor was only just then having to deal with face-to-face rejection for the first time is pretty unrealistic…
(4) One complaint about The Errand of Angels that should NOT be made by anyone is “those actresses are too good looking to be sister missionaries”. There are plenty of stunningly gorgeous sister missionaries in the world — my mission alone included at least two who would outrank any of the sisters in Errand in terms of raw beauty. There is still some LDS cultural artifacts in the world that need to disappear, one of which is the idea that “Sister missionaries are only those girls who aren’t pretty enough to be married by the time they are 21”.
If there’s a complaint about casting in “Errand” to be made, it’s that Erin (29) and Rachel are obviously much older than the 21-22 year old sister missionaries they are supposed to be portraying.