The Missionary Position 

Fed up with the abysmal state of Mormon cinema, mission veteran Richard Dutcher found himself on a second quest

The question of faith, presumably, would not be very appealing subject matter for cinema. An individual's struggle with belief is primarily an internal dialogue among self, soul and God. There's the opportunity for external characters to take part -- the three associates of Job, for example, who come to give comfort but instead harangue the poor unfortunate as he sits, his life wrecked, covered with boils -- but this just makes for lots of conversation, which doesn't inspire potent visual imagery (although the boils might interest the f/x team). In the American mainstream, at least, a few people sitting around arguing about God isn't very cinematic. Jennifer Lopez in funky futuristic bondagewear is.

Yet directors have been fascinated by the topic of faith and religion as long as there has been a cinema. Other than the camp extravaganzas of Cecil B. DeMille and all those wise Irish priests played by Pat O'Brien and Bing Crosby and Spencer Tracy in the '30s and '40s, film depictions of human struggles with God, and the absence of God, have inspired some of the best, and most controversial, products of world cinema.

A film series sponsored by Fontbonne College, Shadow and Light, focuses on issues of faith, beginning Sept. 12 with Robert Bresson's Diary of a Country Priest and continuing through Oct. 17 with works by Carl Dreyer (Ordet), Luis Buñuel (Nazarin and Viridiana), Ingmar Bergman (Winter Light) and Roberto Rossellini (The Messiah). Co-curators Patricia Brooke and John Hodge didn't begin with the idea of faith as a central theme for the series (they originally conceived of a pairing of the "austerity of Bresson and the hyperbole of Buñuel," says Hodge), but once they arrived at that concept, it became more a process of selecting lesser-known works than searching to find films that fit the criteria. "There is a long tradition of faith on film," says Brooke, with controversy being part of that tradition, from D.W. Griffith's Intolerance to Kevin Smith's Dogma. "There's rarely a description of Viridiana that doesn't include the word 'blasphemous,'" Brooke says.

Neither Hodge nor Brooke expects controversy over these films. It's impossible to predict what might offend, however. "We never expect it," says Brooke. "It surprised me with Dogma. I just don't understand. I was raised Catholic. I always felt the church was about questioning and pushing and prodding. It wasn't about protecting and being easily offended."

Any compelling story of faith is about doubt, as Flannery O'Connor shows again and again in her fiction, and doubt brings unease to the orthodox. One thing the films selected for Shadow and Light have in common is the struggle of characters lost in the void of God's silence. Hodge notes that these directors made careers of turning internal human conflict into stunning cinematic representations. Dreyer, for example, is best known for The Passion of Joan of Arc, in which the righteousness of Joan, and the corruption of those around her, is presented with all the harshness, and loving detail, of the big-screen closeup.

All those St. Joan movies (the atrocious The Messenger notwithstanding) stand apart from the films of Shadow and Light -- and from many of the great European films that came out of post-World War II existential despair -- because their narratives center on God's voice rather than God's silence. They also have the advantage of battles and burnings and cross-dressing with which to fill the screen.

They further profit from historical distance. It's another matter to make a movie about religion and faith in the modern world that is sunny rather than bleak, hopeful rather than despairing, respectful rather than irreverent. For some, the very concept has all the appeal of a visit from Mormon missionaries.

So it's no wonder that Richard Dutcher -- writer, director and star of God's Army -- had a hard time finding funding for his independent film, even when the investors he tried to attract were Mormons themselves. His idea was a film about the Mormon missionary experience, a story familiar to Mormons but one that to non-Mormons would appear to be about eager white-shirted pests who show up earnestly on the doorstep just when you've settled in to watch the video of South Park: Bigger, Longer and Uncut.

Even though Latter-day Saints president Spencer Kimball made a call for a Mormon cinema in 1977, the response to that call hasn't been too inspiring in the intervening years. When Dutcher hears the name Brigham, a low-budget polemic about the LDS leader who brought the flock to Utah, he moans painfully: "Oh my God, yes, what an embarrassment. Those (movies) worked against me, too. There have been some LDS filmmakers who have been making movies for the past 20 years or so -- only a couple have had anything to do with real Mormon themes and real Mormon characters. And those that have been made were just abysmal."

Dutcher already had more credibility as a filmmaker than those who'd preceded him in the LDS genre. He'd made Girl Crazy, a light romantic comedy that, after he'd spent four years of his life just to get the funding, was picked up by HBO. But he figured if he was going to devote so much time and effort to get a film made, he'd better make films that mattered to him more than classic boy-meets-girl tales.

He chose to avoid the mainstream and pursue the niche market he knew best (and to him was the most neglected): the members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. "As a Mormon myself and a filmmmaker, I definitely recognized the lack of representation, or the presence of misrepresentation. It seemed that before this film, whenever Mormons were mentioned in films or television, it was as the butt of a joke or total misrepresentation of who we are. One of the things that compelled me to make the movie was to tell the story the way it really is, because if we just allow other people to define us, then we'll just continue to get misrepresented and misunderstood."

He also decided to construct the film for this specialized audience, to focus a story about his own, and for his own, people -- a novel concept, but another that didn't attract wild investor interest. "I couldn't say, 'Last year a movie just like this made this much money,'" says Dutcher, because there was no such movie.

God's Army was made with a budget of $300,000, which allowed for a mere 18-day shooting schedule on location in LA. Dutcher plays the obsessive Elder Dalton, who guides the "greenie," Elder Allen (Matthew Brown), through the peaks and valleys of his missionary duties in the City of Angels, or, more appropriately, Sodom and/or Gomorrah to the upstanding Mormon youth. Dutcher chose the missionary experience because it is common to his LDS audience (a two-year mission is a requirement of the church faithful) and because it was a story that was dear to him. "I wanted to tell my own story," he says (Dutcher served his mission in Veracruz, Mexico). "That's really what it was all about -- communicating what's inside of me. I could have gone historically, but I think the key is to tell stories only you can tell. I'd lived those stories. I knew those people. I'd been through those situations. At first I toyed around with historical pieces or other people's stories, but I realized this was the one that needed to be told. This was the one that called to me."

God's Army follows Elder Allen as he joins his white-shirt-and-tie brethren, spreading the good word of the Mormon faith in Tinseltown. After his first day he tries to go back home to Kansas, but he's retrieved and lives the life of doors slammed in the face, of his roommates' Animal House antics, of spiritual doubt and spiritual awakening. At its worst, God's Army slips into cheesy melodrama -- a classic Hollywood brain tumor threatens the stern yet beloved Elder Dalton; God's intervention heals the handicapped -- and at its best it creates a compelling and earnest narrative. Dutcher manages to make those overly polite, overly decent folks on the front porch into sympathetic characters.

Dutcher also allows more problematic issues of the LDS Church to enter into the story. Blacks were once excluded from the church, and the African-American Elder Banks (in a strong performance by DeSean Terry) does not fare well trying to explain to an African-American couple how that's all changed. Elder Kinegar (Michael Buster) delves into literature that questions the foundations of the church and leaves his mission, and Mormonism, behind.

But Dutcher agrees that a story about faith is a story about doubt. When he listens to the list of films being offered at Fontbonne, he says they are some of his favorites. He believes stories about faith work well in cinema because it is such an internalized subject: "It's such a personal thing. It isn't a subject you talk about at cocktail parties, but everybody has this waxing or waning relationship with God. I think we all want to see that on the screen and see how other people are dealing with it, because it isn't a subject of conversation. But when you see it in a film, it's a filmmaker opening himself up and trying to be as honest and open and sincere as possible. You get a glimpse of what you don't get in conversation or you definitely don't get on television."

The niche audience has responded to God's Army. With limited distribution, the film has made more than $2 million. Dutcher figures this is a sign to do more films for his own people. "I see so many different directions to go with it -- some that would be more mainstream and some that would be more insular. I'm working on a film about a Mormon sheriff in a small Utah town who's also the bishop. It's a contemporary piece, more a treatment of the community and the approaching influence of the outside world. It's a fascinating little piece."

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