Review: Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration

The Snarker appears upset at the omission of discussion of the recently released, church produced film, Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration, so I thought I’d appease him. The bloggernacle will no doubt provide better commentaries on the film from people who know their history better than I, so I will leave the details of the historicity of the film aside. Instead, I am interested in the aesthetics of the film.

In ages past, the primary missionary tools were tracts or pamphlets. Today’s missionary tracts are DVD’s. It’s an interesting shift in medium. Some time ago at BCC, Dave said, “Welcome to the video age; we do movies, not texts. Movies have soundtracks, good for motivating spiritual emotions that should be associated with the Joseph Smith story. Conveniently, movies have no text that can be quoted or analyzed, just a string of images and depicted events.”

Dave’s ironic use of the word “conveniently” suggests the convenience is for the church, with the implication that the church is intentionally evading putting forth material that can be challenged with specific refutations. While I agree that the church wants to avoid controversial subject matter in introductory material, I don’t think that an hour film is a whole lot less substantial than a simple tract or the information given in the first few discussions. As such, I don’t really share Dave’s concern about the meatiness of the material in the church’s new emphasis on video proselytization.

On the other hand, I think Dave was on to more than he realized. Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration is literally an hour long string of images and depicted events. The entire film is a montage. We see many of the major events in his life, along with various bits of playfulness, preaching, and prophesying. We see him imprisoned in Richmond, imprisoned in Liberty and imprisoned in Carthage, though we never once have any idea why. He heals the sick, he rebukes the wicked, he buries his children, he is loved by all. Scottish bagpipes play a tune that will later praise his name.

The blur of images and sound tells us nothing more than a bullet point list of facts about Joseph’s life, but its aim is to convince us of a fact not empirically verifiable ““ that he was indeed a prophet. It’s a work of art calculated to make us feel the spirit.

Is this a good thing? I think it is. Mostly. My only concern is the audience that will respond to the film. The western world is an increasingly cynical and skeptical one. And I sense that many potential investigators will be impressed by the man but unmoved by the message. I’m not exactly sure in what type of format the message of the restoration would connect best with such a group, but I tend to think that this isn’t it.

But for those who are willing to listen, I think it’s a valuable approach. I don’t think the spirit has any limits on the form of its conduit. There are many members who tend to believe that the spirit cannot accompany material that is too gritty, but there are also members who tend to think that the spirit cannot actually accompany material that is too sentimental ““ as if sentimentality were a form of artificiality that voided any true spirituality.

If there’s truth, the spirit can be there also. Although the Mormon literati may be disappointed with the points of truth omitted from the film, the truth we are presented with is no less true. The man who lived the many truths presented on the screen is no less a prophet of God. And certainly, there is no reason for the spirit to be any less present.

Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration is the church’s most ambitious, and probably most expensive, film project to date. Every scene is beautifully shot, and newcomer Nathan Mitchell is believable as the prophet. LDSFilm.com claims that the film will be released nationally into theaters, but I seriously doubt it. Even at full length, the market would never support such a film. But the fact that enough time and effort has been put into the film that it’s even a consideration tells us something about the church’s level of seriousness in the future of film as a medium for making its message heard. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to see a future where the church does produce films that get into national theaters.

4 thoughts on “Review: Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration”

  1. My impression of the film is that the primary intended audience is the membership of the Church. The Church wants us to know Joseph on a more personal level so that we can relate with him and learn how to follow the Spirit as well as he did.

    My favorite scene is the one with Joseph beating a rug. When a man suggests that Joseph should leave such labors to his wife, Joseph corrects him, subtlely teaching a gospel principle. The scene suggests that Joseph knew the doctrine not as a set of abstract ideas about God, but rather as a set of practical principles that can make our lives better, both now and in the future. The Church wants everyone, particularly members, to know the gospel in the practical sense that he did.
     

    Posted by Shane Hathaway

  2. Eric, thanks for a nice writeup. I managed to view the film over the holidays at the Holy Theater on Temple Square … and I liked it! I thought it managed to avoid the oversentimentalization that has been the hallmark of prior LDS films. It presented Joseph Smith as a likeable guy (which he was) and used his childhood and youth to really set up his religious quest in a way that made sense. The film gave Alvin a promitnent role, which he probably deserves: no kid can lose a big brother (and Alvin was apparently a pretty good one) and not be affected deeply.

    Sure, the film milked that leg operation and the 1832 tar and feather incident for all they were worth, but the rest of it seemed to strike the right tone. In particular, the final martyr scene was nicely understated. 

    Posted by Dave

  3. My reaction to the show was an interesting one. As a movie and as a story, I enjoyed “The Work and the Glory – American Zion” much more. But I felt the Spirit much stronger in the Church film.

    MRKH

     

    Posted by Mark Hansen

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