The Errand of Angels is the first film entirely about female Mormon missionaries, and director Christian Vuissa--founder of the LDS Film Festival--gets the sub-genre off to a vigorous start with a visually stunning and thoroughly engaging tale of sister missionaries at work in Austria.
Giving authenticity to the film is co-producer Heidi Johnson, whose own missionary experiences were the basis of the film. Mormon cinema fans will recognize the talents of Erin Chambers (The Singles 2nd Ward) and Rachel Emmers (States of Grace), both of whom put a beautiful face on sister missionary work with their vivacity and earnestness.
Co-starring with Chambers and Emmers is the country of Austria, rendered so picturesque and peaceful that one wonders how a world war ever could have begun there. The film positively glows with saturated hues, green panoramas, and stunning European architecture. The baptism scene at the end is a poetic postcard--sunset shimmering on a slow river. Everything's aglow--even the musical score by Robert Allen Elliott.
Of course such romanticizing has its dangers, and I worried about the glamorizing of missionary work. But the lead character, Sister Taylor (Chambers), certainly experiences some of the difficult realities of European missionary work (people who are kind but only intellectually interested, etc.) and the film is realistic about the sometimes vertiginous alternation missionaries experience between hope and despair as various prospects encourage and disappoint them.
The major trial that Sister Taylor faces is not a crisis of faith (as principal characters face in Elder-oriented missionary films like The Best Two Years or God's Army), but the trial of learning to love a fellow missionary (played by Austrian actress Bettina Schwarz, a plump and severe woman who insists on always speaking German and seems to embody Teutonic intolerance). Through experiences and the tutoring of a sister she spends a week with in another city (Emmers), Sister Taylor learns charity and ends up embracing and appreciating her erstwhile unloveable companion.
At first I balked at this being the major crisis to be resolved. Is that it? While the Elders wrestle against principalities and powers and the rulers of darkness of this world, sister missionaries whine about a nasty roomie? I felt the script underplayed the seriousness of spiritual issues faced by sister missionaries. But then I recalled the three most humbling months of my own mission. All my Christian principles were put to the test when I was companioned with a man from Newfoundland who might as well have been from Neptune. I still wake up with night sweats in remembering those days, and I do count a high point of my mission learning first to tolerate and then appreciate that one-time villain, my comp. Martin Luther said marriage is the school of love, and missionary companionships are similar in that respect, so the film should be applauded for spending real time with a real issue for missionaries: learning to love their closest neighbor, their companion.
My favorite scene took place in a Jewish cemetery that the sisters were maintaining as a service project. Sister Taylor, feeling particularly low because of her unfeeling roomate, separates herself from the others among the tall tombstones and kneels to pray. She collapses in tears, only to be surprised by a middle-aged Austrian woman who comes across the weeping missionary and mistakenly believes she is mourning a dead relative. Despite the mistake, the gentle foreigner genuinely reassures Sister Taylor and ultimately proves an answer to the prayer. The scene is reminiscent of the scene from States of Grace when two non-members are shown praying for a Mormon missionary in crisis, and I think that it is only to the good when Mormons are depicted needing spiritual aid and getting it from outside the faith. Among the more potent lessons of missionary services is being humbled at the sincere spirituality of those not of the Mormon faith.
Especially noteworthy about The Errand of Angels was the modest size of its production given its quality and feature length. At the festival Christian Vuissa announced that they shot in two weeks' time with a crew of about 11 at a total cost of about $175,000. As far as production values go (how good the film looks), this film compares to The Other Side of Heaven, whose budget was $7,000,000. How on earth can monster budgets be justified when the end product is not appreciably different and the latter 40 times the cost of the former? Mormon movie investors, take heed! Christian's film will not only succeed with Mormon audiences, but I predict it will more than repay its investors.
I believe this to be more than a strictly economic issue. Modesty should be a value embraced by Mormon filmmakers just as it is embraced in our ideas about dress and behavior. The bigger the cost, the more that investors will insist upon the film following genre and formulas and the more filmmaking must be subject to secular demands often inconsistent with Mormonism. Somtimes, to make it big, you have to make it little.
And that is what Christian Vuissa does so well, both in his own films and within the LDS Film Festival where he promotes small films and works with new and emerging filmmakers using his own experience as a successful example. He has a small vision, and that is huge to me.
I predict this film will prove a big hit among LDS audiences, and this ought to turn more attention to Christian's other films which are heart-felt, thoughtful, and inspiring. Some of these are not Mormon specific but convey a strong sense of Christian belief (such as his two short films from last year's festival, The Letter Writer and The Reunion). Christian, who is Austrian, has also innovated representing the non-English LDS experience (30% of The Errand of Angels was in German and subtitled), best represented in his half-hour conversion drama entirely in Spanish with English subtitles, Roots and Wings.