First, a disclaimer: I know Elder John H. Groberg (currently in the Presidency of the Seventy), on whose life this movie is based. I’ve met him (had dinner with him, in fact) and heard him speak many times. He might rank among my top five Church speakers of all time.
As anyone who’s heard him speak can tell you, Elder Groberg mentions his experiences in Tonga, both as a missionary and later as a mission president, quite frequently. While other talks by general authorities tend to be [DOCTRINE] [DOCTRINE] [SCRIPTURE] [DOCTRINE] [DOCTRINE] [EXPERIENCE] structured, Elder Groberg has a more informal, unstructured way of speaking, full of a seemingly random assortment of experiences, stories, and memories from his days on Tonga and elsewhere.
When he visited our mission in Taiwan, Elder Groberg spoke in a series of zone conferences…and gave a different talk each time, with each talk seemingly created on the spot containing whatever thoughts and stories he felt like sharing right at that moment.
Please note, however — and this is the point — despite the somewhat loose organization, Elder Groberg never, EVER rambles aimlessly. While unstructured, his talks are never meaningless . He shares a story from his days in Tonga, then immediately explains why the story is significant and what he learned from it.
In other words, Elder Groberg’s stories have a point.
Someone will need to explain to me, then, why we have The Other Side of Heaven, a purported “tribute” to Elder Groberg, dramatizing events from his two and a half year mission to Tonga…but with all the spirituality and meaning removed. Put simply, The Other Side of Heaven is a dull, pointless mess of a movie that commits the unforgivable sin of being completely unfaithful to the spirit of the man that inspired it.
The movie is, for lack of a better word, ‘content-free’. Things happen in the movie, of course, but unlike Elder Groberg’s stories, they don’t have any point. They are random events strung together without any meaning or direction.
I genuinely do not understand what the filmmakers’ goal was in creating this movie in the first place. Elder Groberg himself writes in the introduction of his book on which the movie is based that “the main purpose of this book is to emphasize the overwhelming need for faith in our lives“. Strangely, then, the filmmakers decided to remove all specific LDS references (presumably to attract a more general audience) but then continue on and remove virtually all traces of religion and spirituality as well. (After all, it’s not like the main character of the movie is a church missionary or something…)
You might ask (and I will) how could the filmmakers stay true to Elder Groberg’s own admitted purpose of ‘emphasizing the need for faith’ if all religious content was taken out of the movie from the very beginning? Excellent question! What *was* the filmmakers’ goal with The Other Side of Heaven? Elder Groberg (the movie version) is the same person at the end of his mission than at the beginning, and so is seemingly everyone he came across while he was there. There’s no growth in ‘faith’ or ‘testimony’ because those are alien concepts within the movie. One wonders, then, (based solely on the movie) what the point of serving a mission is supposed to be…
Scene after scene in the movie go by without any purpose or meaning. Let’s look at some of these individual scenes:
Branch president’s daughter gets a ‘job’: In the middle of the movie, some ‘piratey’-looking people land on Tonga and essentially offer to trade alcohol for Tongan women. The branch president’s daughter goes along with them.
From the beginning, this scene is not explained very well. Is she going as a servant? A prostitute? Both? Is this a temporary ‘position’, or permanent? Later in the movie, she reappears again washed up on the shore. Again, not explained: how did she wind up on shore? Was her job finished? Did she escape? Was there a shipwreck? After being discovered on the beach, her character IS NEVER SEEN OR MENTIONED AGAIN FOR THE REST OF THE MOVIE.
Which raises the question, what was the point of this sequence? If she’s supposed to be a counter-example to living a gospel life — you have to discuss why that’s the case. Why introduce her character at all if the movie is not going to do anything with her?
Elder Groberg has a discussion with his counselors: Late in the movie, Elder Groberg is preparing a boat along with his two counselors. One of them mentions something similar to what happened to the branch president’s daughter — Tongan women are being pressured by elements of native Tongan culture to sell their virtue, essentially.
I got my hopes up at this point, thinking now at last the movie was going to discuss a specific characteristic of Tongan culture and how it conflicted with the traditional moral values espoused by the Church. This was a great opportunity for the movie Elder Groberg to discuss the moral issues involved as well as talk with his counselors as to how the Church should deal with this conflict. However, immediately after bringing it up, they argue for a second and later the counselor apologizes. The issue is NEVER MENTIONED AGAIN. The point?
Elder Groberg meets his mission president…two-thirds into the movie, who chastises him for not keeping up on record-keeping…and then apologizes…and then leaves. He’s never seen again the rest of the movie. Again…the point?
Elder Groberg gets ‘propositioned’ by a Tongan girl, and later scolded by her mother for not accepting: This is actually one the better written and acted part of the movie, and it would be one of the movie’s (few) high points if it weren’t for the false doctrinal lesson. The mom asks why Elder Groberg wasn’t willing to sleep with her daughter. The real answer is “in our Church we believe in the law of chastity which states that there should be no sexual relations outside the bonds of marriage.”, but the movie (which, remember, systematically avoids all references to specific LDS doctrine) has Elder Groberg answering “because I have a girlfriend at home and I want to be faithful to her” which, of course, implies that if he DIDN’T happen to have a girlfriend at home, it would be okay. Close enough, you say? If a non-member saw this movie, would he/she be able to say afterwards that Mormons believe in no-sex-before-marriage? Or the opposite…?
Many of the problems of the film seem to result from a common but flawed assumption — that true events in the life of a great man are automatically worthy of dramatization in a movie. Maybe a typhoon really hit Tonga when Elder Groberg was there as a missionary, and the supply ship was late bringing food afterward as portrayed in the movie. So what? What did he learn from the experience? What did anyone learn from the experience? Maybe Elder Groberg really did have an encounter with his mission president as portrayed in the movie. So what? Just because it really happened doesn’t mean it’s worth putting in a movie, unless it serves some purpose in storytelling or portraying the movie’s theme. (Does this movie have a theme?)
(Note this conference talk from October 2004, where Elder Groberg shares specific experiences that were portrayed in the movie, and immediately explains what meaning he derived from them. He put more spirituality and meaning in two sentences of explanation, than the movie did in two hours!)
Why portray the life of a great man, if you’re going to consistently ignore what made him great in the first place? Elder Groberg’s life contains many, many experiences that are instructive and spiritually uplifting. I’ve heard them. His book has them. Why didn’t the movie portray any of them? Why waste everyone’s time with a cinematic experience that has nothing to offer spiritually or emotionally?
Final Grade: D
(Admittedly, I am biased on the matter — objectively, it’s probably a ‘C’ movie instead.)