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Sundance 2022 Critic’s Notebook: The Mission, Utama

Still from The MissionThe Mission. (Photo: Antti Savolainen)

The beginning of Tania Anderson’s The Mission transported me from my virtual festival cocoon to Utah’s snowy slopes and the towns below; the ambient Mormonism emanating from those surroundings is a shadow structure of any IRL Sundance. Anderson’s debut feature documentary invites viewers to observe the nice-seeming young men and women dispatched from there to proselytize on behalf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The opening introduces four main subjects—two male, two female—preparing to separate from their families for a two-year term, beginning with nine weeks of missionary training camp in Provo. From there, they’re sent to Finland, whose total population of Mormons is around 4,900—fewer than there are in Utah’s Nephi City alone. It never occurs to anyone to point out that this probably says more about Utah’s surplus of Mormons, and what that might mean for everyone else who lives there, than it does about Finland.

The Mission quickly demonstrates competence in executing a conventional doc storytelling model without being insultingly reductive in setting up four character arcs, planting seeds of future conflict or doubt et al. So I kept watching, in part because I was morbidly interested in whether scenes of earnest young American teenagers attempting to convert Finns on the street would be as awkward as expected (confirmed) and, given the dates of the mission being presented upfront as mid-2019 to 2021, whether COVID would meaningfully impact either their mission or the storytelling trajectory. (Not really on the former and not at all on the latter—everyone just suddenly starts wearing masks, which at this point is honestly probably the best decision.) It’s easy to imagine this material—American teens in the familiarly self-stigmatizing suits and dresses of Mormon youth attempting to win over silently or overtly hostile Finns—being played for cringe comedy at varying degrees of severity, but this isn’t that kind of movie. It’s one determined to respect all, even when being served access to something as overtly mockable as, say, teens being briefed for their mission with a slideshow that includes, as an easily explicable metaphor for their use by God, an image of “The Operational Principles of a cylinder lock and key” sourced, as the bottom of the card attests, from makeagif.com.

A few moments allow in mildly critical outside perspectives. One is at a high school, where the missionaries are asked (in English, by teens taking pity on their still barely-functional Finnish) whether this extended trip doesn’t feel like it’s taking away from the freedom of their teenage years. Another comes when two missionaries achieve a rare connection and are invited into a (presumably very bored) family’s living room, where three skeptical people (pretty politely) call out, among other things, the information that Jesus Christ visited America after his resurrection. But these are very mild-mannered manifestations of skepticism, and the indifferent/gruff rudeness of Finns on the street isn’t played up. This movie is determined to avoid any kind of overt attack on the LDS, both as a matter of humanist principle and because the church’s cooperation was key to getting approval to become the first-ever non-LDS crew to follow missionaries from start to finish on their quest. The emphasis is on how the trip transforms these four young people—a change which, given the assignment’s duration and relocation to another country under conditions of rigidly codified isolation, seems inevitable.

The Mission is a case study in the limitations of prioritizing, broadly speaking, “developing empathy for others” as (one of) nonfiction filmmaking’s primary goal(s). Anderson isn’t a Finnish native but has lived there for some time and thought of this film when spotting two Mormon missionaries on the street—her first instinct, like most people’s, was to pass them by briskly, then she second-guessed that impulse. In her press kit director’s statement, Anderson writes:

In all of this lack of curiosity/avoidance/isolation fear is bred. And this attitude or general disposition towards others is not only applicable to LDS missionaries, but to all sorts of groups of people that populate our urban landscapes—from the homeless to Wall Street traders. So in a sense, with this film, I’m hoping to reduce the fear, the automatic wariness we have of others […] when we scratch the surface, we usually discover much more commonality than not.

The spectrum posited here is along an understandable economic scale—from indigent homelessness to repellent broker wealth—but also inadvertently creates a weird binary: surely we wouldn’t attempt to “understand” the lives of either social group using the exact same tools or biases (unless, I suppose, “we” are doctrinaire Marxist economists). This kind of one-size-fits-all analysis runs into trouble when grappling with the real-world harm that can be done by, say, religious or political organizations; the idea that they might be run by people who are nice to their families, kind to animals or fun to grab a drink with becomes irrelevant. My problems with the Mormon church aren’t particularly unusual and it’s not like the controversies surrounding that organization are obscure: accusations relating to taking economic advantage of members, historical racisms et al. Anderson’s subjects aren’t in any meaningful sense complicit with, or answerable for, any of this: they’re too young (hovering around age 18), assuredly at the bottom rather than the top of the organizational ladder, and my point is not to attack them. But this kind of soft-serve humanism is a core assumption of too many nonfiction works and no less underwhelming or inadequate regardless of how novel or interesting the context might be.

I was initially fooled into optimism by Alejandro Loayza Grisi’s Utama, which looks terrific in the ways you‘d expect a still photographer‘s debut feature to be. Each widescreen composition seems frameable as a still, with imposingly arid and expansive Bolivian landscapes often dwarfing the inhabitants and indoor spaces broken into dioramic planes of order within humble rural huts. (Grisi’s DP is the formidable Barbara Alvarez, whose credits include The Headless Woman and Thursday Till Sunday.) The mix is also extremely aggressive and serves Cergio Prudencio’s score extremely well, starting with the conspicuous left-right separation and panning of panpipes over the opening shot.

But undeniable compositional and sonic skill can only cover for so much. We’re first introduced to an elderly couple among the last to remain on increasingly unforgiving territory. Virginio (José Calcina Sisa) goes out daily to herd their llamas, while Sisa (Luisa Quispe) is responsible for fetching the water—an increasingly difficult daily walk for her, with no guarantee the pump she’s heading to won’t be tapped out. When grandson Clever (Santos Choque) comes to visit from the big city, he articulates the obvious: there’s only so long the aging pair can stay out here before common sense dictates the necessity of relocating. Virginio is stubborn and calls Clever a brat (in Quecha, rather than Spanish, so that Clever can’t understand him) but lets him come along to herd. This gives the film a chance to rework some specific shots from Gerry, except instead of Matt Damon and Casey Affleck trudging side by side we get grandpa and his headphones-and-hoodie wearing grandson.

Operating under the principle that an ominous cough heard in the first act must go off in the last, Utama turns out to be a fairly tedious harangue about the end of a traditional way of life and destructive ecological change. It’s almost impressive how Grisi drains the repeated sight of llamas—already one of the world’s most inherently comical animals, here also tricked out with pink feathers in their ears—of any humor. For a while, I entertained the possibility that the stiff delivery of thematically blunt dialogue (“What’s going on?” “There is no water, Virginio. That’s what’s going on”) wasn’t the result of awkward performances but deliberately Brechtian, the better to draw attention away from identifying with individual humans to consider the systemic issues at hand. Eventually, though, I had to concede that a film with big ambition was just clumsy in its writing and execution. Virginio is seen alone, muttering “You’re dying, you’re dying”—to himself, to a landscape marked by the ravages of climate change and to a whole way of life. That may be somebody’s idea of good screenwriting, but it’s definitely not mine.

Utama was also the only film world premiering in this year’s Sundance that I saw in a screening room rather than at home—and hence a reminder that, no matter how happy I am to have an above-average consumer-grade projector and 5.1 surround sound, I’d never claim it’s “basically the same.” While, especially in LA, filmmakers and production companies quietly took up the slack, making case-by-case decisions about when to rent out screening rooms and theaters to have at least one in-person Sundance screening, I again leaned into the at-home convenience of Sundance minus physical obstacles. But the night-and-day difference that comes with a theatrical setting (Utama‘s visual and auditory pleasures are considerable) was a reminder of how, if nothing else, that experience can almost automatically buy more opening-minutes goodwill than an at-home viewing can.

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