Looking through the final schedule, this year’s LDS Film Festival has the usual variety of feature films, short films, and documentaries, but new this year are some “musical interludes” before screenings featuring local musical artists. Undoubtedly a decision made to broaden the scope of the festival and support local LDS musicians, who face many of the same difficulties supporting themselves and finding audiences as LDS filmmakers do.
For an “LDS” film festival, though, there seems to be a minimal amount of LDS content and themes among the feature films screening this year. Other than the documentary Two Brothers (chronicling the lives of two LDS siblings), and a screening of the 1931 film Corianton (based on stories from the Book of Mormon) there doesn’t seem to be any direct LDS character studies or topics. (The closest might be The Last Eagle Scout, depending on how it ends up approaching the LDS / Scouting connection.)
Obviously, making conclusions about content based on two paragraph blurbs from the schedule handout is not a precise method (and direct LDS content can be found in many of the short films, which aren’t on my schedule this year). If impressions are correct, though, this wave of films by LDS filmmakers feature more generally applicable religious stories and principles rather than LDS-specific movies (such as films based on the Joseph Smith story, or LDS missionaries shown in previous years).
An interesting trend (if it is one) — not necessarily good or bad. Since I just wrote how LDS film can be insular at times, I think it is a good step for LDS filmmakers to look for more generally-relatable material with positive religious principles and themes to broaden the audience. However, I think it would be sad if LDS filmmakers end up abandoning all specific LDS material en masse and the “LDS” Film Festival becomes just a “Utah” Film Festival for local artists with no LDS connection other than where the filmmakers happen to go for Sunday services.
On to Wednesday’s feature film:
Written / Directed by Tom Russell
Based on a true story, Redemption (also known as “For Robbing The Dead”) is set in 1860′s Utah, although (as above) there are no obvious LDS characters or content and religion plays only a small role.
Henry Heath is a lawman who has settled in an unnamed small town with his wife and young daughter. After their daughter passes away due to illness, the town discovers a local immigrant worker named Jean Baptiste has been digging up graves from the local cemetery and stealing their clothes. Branded on his forehead and exiled to a remote island (Antelope Island in the Great Salt Lake, where the movie was filmed) Baptiste lives a lonely, meager existence, leaving behind his mentally-ill wife and a host of people who wish he was dead (and who may do more than ‘wish’). Heath respects the law and volunteers to bring Baptiste provisions, but soon finds himself the target of community prejudice as well, for seemingly “forgiving” someone who is unforgivable. How far should he go to help and protect someone who may not deserve it?
Redemption is a solid and moving film with a resonant theme, amply supported by some strong performances. As a writer, Russell plays the two main characters correctly: neither the “hero” or the “villain” are portrayed in black-and-white manner, and the ‘grayness’ of humanity, in fact, becomes the thrust of the story. Heath is a decent guy who does what is right, but he’s been involved in violent encounters where the “right” and “wrong” may be in question. Maybe he needs forgiveness and mercy as well?
Jean Baptiste isn’t portrayed as overly remorseful nor villainously callous — rather he’s strangely aloof, without ever directly admitting he’s sorry for his actions, but without demonstrating a malicious motive for doing so, either. Maintaining that balance means that Heath doesn’t have his decision about how to treat Baptiste made for him. Jean is neither a saint nor a monster — just a strange man who has done some bad things. The film emphasizes that criminals like Jean are still human beings, and without necessarily “forgiving” him for his transgressions, Heath has to consider how Baptiste should be treated to respect the demands of justice but without violating his humanity.
The use of grave robbing as Baptiste’s “sin” is interesting (even beyond the true story element of the movie). Jean Baptiste isn’t a murderer or child molester, after all — is robbing dead bodies an “unforgivable” sin as community members state in the film? A modern comparison may be those who burn the US flag today — something many consider to be hugely offensive and unforgivable from a primal, emotional perspective, but not necessarily from a logical perspective (compared to other crimes). Why do we bury dead bodies with expensive clothes anyway, when even to religious believers those items are useless? Jean Baptiste’s motive doesn’t appear to be financial in nature (since he doesn’t sell any of the stolen items). Perhaps it’s just his warped sense of practicality that said, “THEY won’t need those things, I should use them…” Russell correctly doesn’t slant the movie to argue grave robbing should or should not be considered a serious moral crime; he merely portrays Baptiste’s actions and the community’s response and uses them as the catalyst for the true theme of the film: how do we correctly apply the laws of justice and mercy? How do we show compassion and charity, even to those who do things we consider sinful and offensive?
Redemption is not perfect. Whether due to theater audio issues or a strong accent or both, a fair amount of Jean Baptiste’s dialogue was unintelligible for me; an obstacle when Baptiste’s dialogue forms a core part of the film’s message. Russell also uses some strange camera angles and haphazard editing that disrupt the flow of the film. Many scenes seem to start or end a second or two too quickly, while others linger two seconds too long without any reason behind it. The story and performances are strong, but to me the directorial and editing style detracted from the film rather than added. Tom Russell the writer appears to be a few steps ahead of Tom Russell the director, even though it is clear he has the tools and the vision in both areas to become a premier filmmaker in time.
(Even then, the writing still has issues: the film starts with a ten minute subplot with five additional characters whose purpose is merely to setup Jean Baptiste getting caught robbing graves. Afterwards, none of those characters are seen or mentioned again. I’d have to believe any screenwriting professor would have looked at that sequence and said, “Simplify!”, finding a less convoluted way to set up the main story.)
There are enough “adult” elements in the film not to recommend for children (the film will probably be PG-13, but without anything mature LDS audiences will find offensive). Flaws aside, Redemption is a solid, thought-provoking film that has a positive message about charity and compassion for everyone. I look forward to what Tom Russell produces in the future.
[Redemption is scheduled to release theatrically in spring 2012]
My Grade: B