Mormon Artist

Father in Israel review

Note: Father in Israel will have a limited theatrical release sometime this year and will later be available on DVD. To keep updated, visit onegoodman.com (the film has been retitled One Good Man)

In the question-and-answer sessions following both showings of Father in Israel at the LDS Film Festival last January, Christian Vuissa characterized his new film in a way that made people widen their eyes and laugh in surprise. He said that he thinks of Father in Israel as “a Bourne Identity for Mormons.” He went on to explain that it’s a story about an everyday hero—a man who dodges the bullets of everyday life to rescue the people around him. “A Bourne Identity for Mormons” is kind of a funny description of a film, but in this case, it’s also a very apt one.

Father in Israel is the story of a man named Aaron Young who lives in Salt Lake with his wife and six children. He’s a rather ordinary person with an ordinary job, but when we first meet him, his life has just become increasingly hectic. One of his sons is returning from a mission, another will soon be leaving for a mission, and another is getting ready to be baptized. His oldest daughter has just brought her boyfriend home from college to meet the family, and another of his daughters is about to get her driver’s license. Did I mention that his parents are just about to leave on a mission, and that he and his wife are about to celebrate their twenty-fifth wedding anniversary? This is a very busy man. Things at work are also busy—and stressful. As the HR manager for his company, Aaron is asked to lay off one-fifth of the company’s employees—an action he finds unnecessary and very troubling. Feeling overwhelmed physically and spiritually, one Monday evening Aaron talks to his father in the garage. His father offers to give him a priesthood blessing, and that sacred ordinance takes place in a room crowded with power tools and boxes. A few days after the blessing from his father, Aaron’s stake president calls him into his office and asks him to be the bishop of his ward.

The rest of the film is exactly how Vuissa describes it—an everyday man dodging the bullets of everyday life to rescue the people around him. As a father, he waits up late into the night for his curfew-breaking daughter Amanda to come home. He “grills” his daughter Laura’s fiancé after they announce their engagement and takes on the difficult task of explaining to the parents of said fiancé why they as nonmembers can’t attend their son’s wedding. As a bishop, Aaron assists with priesthood ordinances, counsels troubled members of his ward, and visits an elderly widow who hasn’t seen any family in over two years. As an HR manager, Aaron tries time and again to persuade his boss to not lay off so many employees. Aaron Young doesn’t have super powers, ninja skills (as far as we know), or even a nifty electric-blue spandex bodysuit (which is probably just as well—who honestly looks good in those?). He’s just a good man who, in the spirit of priesthood service, tries to live a good life by taking care of his family, serving the people in his ward, dealing with a stressful job, and struggling to figure out how to balance his responsibilities and to keep himself going when the energy is being sapped out of him daily. It’s a simple story told in a simple way, and I found it absolutely compelling.

How is it that Vuissa manages to tell a compelling story without, as some Mormon films have done in the past, either satirizing Mormon culture or raising the dramatic stakes by throwing in some juicier material? In our last issue of Mormon Artist, Christian Vuissa said something about his goal as a Mormon filmmaker that I found illuminating: “Mormon cinema has lost its steam in recent years and we will have to see what happens. I think there were a number of extremes in the beginning, from the goofy comedy to the heavy drama. But in the end there will probably be a balance somewhere in the middle. I also think that there was a strong urge to tell Hollywood-type epic stories, which basically wasted millions of dollars that could have been used to build a more modest but consistent independent film movement. I believe that ‘by small means the Lord can bring about great things.’ I hope we can find a way to apply that principle to filmmaking. The opportunity we have right now is to establish a film form that is unique to our culture.”

Christian Vuissa is doing something remarkable. He is, as he said, establishing a film form that is unique to Mormon culture. He’s establishing a “modest” kind of Mormon filmmaking. Not only does he make good-quality films on a shoe-string budget, but when it comes to the actual storytelling, he’s working with a “modest” Mormon aesthetic. Father in Israel, as well as Vuissa’s other films—films such as Errand of Angels and Roots and Wings—are neither the “goofy comedy” brand of earlier independent Mormon cinema nor the “heavy drama.” There is no high drama in Father in Israel. The film has a modest, if lilting, pace and there are a number of scenes where Aaron Young sits or stands somewhere—at a window, in front of a picture of Christ, in his car in the driveway—just pondering. In these moments, the only action on screen is the internal turmoil Aaron is experiencing. (It’s a tribute to actor Tim Threlfall, who portrays Aaron, that these scenes are some of the most compelling in the film.) Yet, while I wouldn’t vouch for every pair of eyes at the showings of Father in Israel I attended, I can say that mine were conspicuously spilling tears all through the second half, as were those of the people sitting around me. Why was that?

I think it’s because most Mormons’ experiences with their spirituality don’t involve either a satire of their culture or high drama. We experience spirituality in the everyday. Terryl Givens, in his essay “There Is Room for Both” in the BYU Studies special “Mormons and Film” issue (vol. 46, no. 2, 2007), would call this “the disintegration of sacred distance,” which he cites as one of the defining paradoxes of Mormon culture. “With God an exalted man, man a God in embryo, the family a prototype for heavenly sociality, and Zion a city with dimensions and blueprints,” writes Givens, “Joseph [Smith] rewrote conventional dualism as thoroughgoing monism. The resulting paradox is manifest in the recurrent invasion of the banal into the realm of the holy and the infusion of the sacred into the realm of the quotidian” (emphasis added). As Mormons, we believe that men and women have divine natures—literally. Our spirits are literal offspring of God. Yet how do we spend our lives? Like Aaron Young, we spend our lives taking care of our banal responsibilities. But because we are divine beings and tackling each of these responsibilities is part of our spiritual progression and ultimately brings us closer to God—nothing is really banal. As Jeffrey R. Holland said in a CES fireside last year, “Every experience can become a redemptive experience if we remain bonded to our Father in heaven through that difficulty.” “Every experience” means difficult experiences in whatever form they come, and most often that means the everyday kind of experience.

So it shouldn’t surprise me that a good number of us who saw Father in Israel were dewy-eyed or weeping openly by the end of it. Vuissa said that several people have told him after seeing the film, “It helped me reconnect with my values.” I would have to say that that was my experience as well. Seeing Aaron Young’s everyday struggles reminded me of things I cherish and believe in as a Mormon; and seeing those struggles rendered with good acting, good cinematography, and a lovely musical score, reminded me of the things I cherish and believe in as an artist. To have those feelings blended together was a satisfying experience—one that I haven’t always had when consuming Mormon art. Vuissa has said of his filmmaking, “I really hope that I can grow into a filmmaker who makes films that not only entertain but also edify. I really think that films have the potential to ‘instruct in such a way as to improve, enlighten, or uplift morally, spiritually, or intellectually’ by telling stories that resonate deeply within us and inspire us to reach our full potential.” I would say that with Father in Israel, Christian Vuissa has done all of those things. ❧

Comments

  1. Lynn Winborn

    I can’t wait for this to come out on DVD! It sounds intriguing.

    I’m one who likes Mormon cinema, as it’s called, but have felt a bit let down by some of it because it does present a stereotypical view of Latter-day Saint life, makes us look silly and shallow, and does little to really promote understanding. Then, on the other side of the swinging pendulum (which can’t quite find the balance), we are sometimes portrayed as drama queens who, in the eyes of the world, must not actually believe or have faith in the principles we profess. Also, I hate to say it, but, some of the acting is rather amateurish.

    I look forward to movies I can share with non-Mormon friends without cringing, or having to explain the humor.

  2. August Larson

    I saw this movie at the LDS Film Festival and it was simply amazing. I never cry in movies, but this one brought tears to my eyes. Such a strong, touching movie that wonderfully portrays Mormons the way we are.

  3. Robert Allen Elliott

    Hi Katherine,

    Thanks for the nice reference on the score. It was an absolute pleasure to write this score for such a compelling story – told so honestly.

    When it comes to Directors / story tellers- Christian is the real deal.

    All the best,

    Robert Allen Elliott

  4. James Goldberg

    I am VERY interested. I think the comment by the woman who said it “helped me reconnect with my values” is telling. We need art that can show us things in a way that doesn’t just represent our values, but helps us reconnect with our values but letting them be everyday and human. Best of luck to Christian in all his noble future ventures.

    Best of luck to Katherine, also, as she continues working to articulate what is working in Mormon arts.

  5. Alice Durrant

    Christian — Loved seeing the trailer. Can’t wait to see it in October. Keep up the good work!

  6. tyler

    I’ll make a comment about this movie, even though I haven’t seen it; as such, maybe I’m commenting more on the theory. Still:

    From what you’ve written here, this movie sounds so much more honest to my experience of Mormonism. Though it sounds simple, the most difficult thing to do in any narrative artistic medium is to tell an unvarnished story well. There is a sense in which both extremes in Mormon cinema thus far have been dishonest to the experience of most Mormons. On the one hand, no one lives Mormonism as the jokey fluff that filled most of the early “Singles Ward” type cinema. At the other extreme, however, almost no mission companionship deals with a repentant gang-banger turned Elder, a repenting former pornographic actress, a series of murders, and an attempted suicide. While the former may have evoked a few laughs, and while the latter may have packed a dramatic–even powerful–spiritual punch at the end, none spoke directly to my heart, anyway, because both were fundamentally dishonest: both suggested that the quotidian experience of a Mormon is not enough to fill a movie: the directors needed either jokes or heightened drama to make Mormonism worthy of cinema.

    But, as it sounds like this director knows, such is not the case.

    There is plenty in the everyday life of an everyday Mormon to make for compelling cinema. The commonplace penitent, the devoted home teacher, the caring sister, the burden-bearing Bishop, the teen groping for a testimony, the everyday beauty of a blessing, a baptism, a funeral–and, as you point out, the meaning, or, what all of this says about how we see ourselves as a people and how we view our place in the world.

    I’m not in Utah, but I’ll find this in a theater or I’ll get it on DVD…

  7. Katherine Morris

    Tyler: Thank you. That’s exactly what I meant to convey. I think that satire can be good in small doses (the Singles Ward itself wasn’t really as dreadful as the “let’s-not-take-ourselves-seriously” avalanche it started), and I deeply respect Richard Dutcher for his work in Mormon cinema. I think Christian, however, will be successful in nudging Mormon cinema into mainstream Mormon culture and into mainstream culture in general because of how accessible his films are.

    Speaking of which, for anyone who’s in Utah, One Good Man is scheduled for a theatrical release October 9th, so mark your calendars, and bring friends!

  8. tyler

    Katherine–

    I have mixed feelings about Richard Dutcher. I thought “Brigham City ” was underrated, and “States of Grace,” for all it’s melodrama, really did pack not only a punch but a significant and heart-felt message about the necessity and beauty of grace: all of those prodigals would be unlikely to cross paths as happened in that movie, but the movie nevertheless powerfully conveyed the notion that no life is so broken, no sin so dark, and no fall so complete as to be beyond the Savior’s redeeming reach.

    Still, I have little patience for Mormons artists who feel themselves to be “beyond” or “above” everyday Mormons and everyday Mormonism. I think Dutcher, especially in his “farewell” essay (the one that was published in one of the Utah papers some years ago), betrayed this sense of condescension, and that frankly bothers me. The Mormons artists who manage to keep their love and admiration for everyday Mormons while still pushing us to appreciate artistic horizons we otherwise might not have glimpsed are few and precious (see Emma Lou Thayne for one of the greatest examples).

  9. Davey Morrison

    Here’s my review of the film. I didn’t like it as much as Katherine did.
    http://www.examiner.com/examiner/x-9888-Salt-Lake-City-Movie-Events-Examiner~y2009m10d20-Review-One-Good-Man-dir-Christian-Vuissa-2009

  10. Katherine Morris

    Davey: Thanks for posting the link. Just read your review, and I really appreciate your perspective, particularly with your background in film. I think it’s really interesting that while I find Dutcher’s sensational story-telling at times manipulative, you find it engaging and authentic; and while I find Vuissa’s glossy Mormon family film engaging, you find it at times manipulative. I think that there’s a place for both kinds of films because–as our separate reviews illustrate–Mormons’ experiences with Mormonism and are so varied. God’s Army engaged me in a way that One Good Man didn’t, and One Good Man engaged me in a way that God’s Army didn’t. I don’t agree that Vuissa’s film is a “step back” in Mormon cinema. I would call it a step in another direction. It’s going to take a lot of experimentation before we get some truly great Mormon cinema, and anyone who’s willing to take steps in Mormon cinema deserves credit. Speaking of which…how’s that Mormon Film Anthology project going? :-)

  11. Davey Morrison

    I’m working on editing “To Be Continued” for the LDS Film Festival deadline!

  12. Hunter Hale

    What a beautiful review and fascinating comments! These are worth reading and pondering. It’s so nice not to have “bashing” comments that you find so often on the internet. I find Vuissa’s films to be visually exciting, well acted and rendering simple but deep truths. ERRAND OF ANGELS is a wonderful lesson in the importance of not only doing ones best in serving the Lord, but being careful not to judge others who do not seem to match our efforts. Each person is different and often one person will be able to touch another’s life because of that difference. In other words the Lord works His ways through all kinds of people if they are willing to give their hearts to him.

    I’ve loved good film since my earliest years. My brother and I began making 8mm movies as kids back in 1949. Later we did some 16mm work and made a LDS themed filmed titled SEEDS OF JOY. As we had the opportunity to screen it for different groups we soon learned that the same film could move a person to tears or bore them to death.

    I’m excited and grateful to have lived long enough to experience to LDS themed films that have burst upon the screen in the past several years. I’ll never forget going to see GOD’S ARMY out of curiosity and being spiritually moved in a way that I had never experienced in a theatre. Dutcher’s BRIGHAM CITY is so much more than a murder-mystery and his STATES OF GRACE is a powerful film that I won’t soon forget. I returned to the theatre to re-see each of these films (and later purchased and watched them again on DVD).

    The LDS themed films that have had the strongest impact on me in addition to the three Dutcher films have been the three WORK & THE GLORY series; CHARLY; THE OTHER SIDE OF HEAVEN and ERRAND OF ANGELS. And I would have to place EMMA SMITH: MY STORY near the top. I also found the recent DVD release of ONCE UPON A SUMMER to be very worth while. I was out of town when ONE GOOD MAN had its theatrical run, but will be looking for its DVD release.

  13. Katherine Morris

    Hunter! So good to see someone with your many years of film experience commenting here. I remember sitting opposite you and your brother at the Association for Mormon Letters luncheon when you received your special award for your remarkable work on the Trapped by the Mormons DVD. I wasn’t sure what to be more impressed by: your charm or your vast knowledge of film. :-) I’m pleased to hear you commenting on all of those Mormon films that you’ve enjoyed. You sound like an omnivorous consumer of Mormon media, and it’s inspiring to hear that you found something to value in each of those Mormon films you’ve mentioned.

  14. Randy

    Hunter,

    This might swerve the discussion off topic, but I would love to hear more about Seeds of Joy. What year was it? How long? What subject? As a fellow LDS film history buff I think it’d be really interesting to hear more about it or of course actually view it. (You can email me at randyastle@yahoo.com if you like.) As for One Good Man, I think you’d enjoy it. Tim Threlfall held a screening out here in NYC a few weeks ago–it was well attended and received. I consider Christian a good friend and even though I have mixed feelings about all of his films, including this one, I think this is another film that is moving LDS cinema in the right–rather than the wrong–direction. Thanks to everyone for your comments.

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