Saturday, September 30, 2006

The Work and the Glory: American Zion (2 stars out of 5)

The Work and the Glory: American Zion (2 stars out of 5)
Passionless Mormon story falls flat

American Zion is the second film in the Latter Day cinema series, The
Work and the Glory, about the early history of the Mormon Church. It
details the fictional rifts in the Steed family, New York farmers torn
apart by some members' embracing of neighbor Joseph Smith's claims
that he's a prophet of a new faith.

American Zion follows the Steeds -- patriarch and
reluctant-to-turn-Mormon Ben (Sam Hennings); his Mormon son Nathan
(Alexander Carroll) and his prodigal son, the faithless gambler Joshua
(Eric Johnson); and the Smiths -- Jonathan Scarfe plays Joseph -- as
they search for the Promised Land in the 1830s.

Zion, Smith tells his followers, is the city the Lord will build
(through Mormons) in North America, where "we will all be of one heart
and one mind." He just can't seem to find it on the map.

Hounded out of New York state, tarred and feathered in what was
supposed to be Zion -- Kirtland, Ohio -- and further hassled in
Missouri, Smith fast-tracks his branch of nascent Christianity 1,200
years straight past pacifism and turning the other cheek to the
Crusades. He raises a private army to go and get Mormon land back.

Fascinating material on many levels. But what could have been an
involving and tortured journey of a flexible faith and the troubling
history of Smith, his church and rural America's reaction to it, is a
flat and unemotional affair that deflates just when it should grow
more tense and exciting.

Sterling Van Wagenen, a producer (The Trip to Bountiful) and director
who used to run the film program at the University of Central Florida,
returns to directing with this, a movie with a nice sense of its era,
but dully acted by blank-faced players playing blase characters. It's
a movie totally without pace or a sense of drama.

The film never quite proselytizes, as it sets up the new church as a
true faith, glossing over the fuzzy founding story detailed in the
first Work and the Glory film. Here, Mormons are the devout chosen,
upright, hard-working (white) men, women smiling beatifically at their
swelling bellies, a church of abolitionists set upon by racists,
slaveholders and book burners. History backs up much of that.

But martyrs or not, there is no emotional heat to the many times Ben
flatly drones, "They're tearing this family apart." Even the uplifting
hymns or cruel hardships of their persecution fail to move.

Scarfe is emblematic of the movie's problems. He can't play his
neo-crucifixion, Smith's tar-and-feathering, with conviction. He wanly
fake-struggles through what had to be a wrenching experience.

There's another movie in this series on the way, A House Divided. But
unless the filmmakers can heighten the drama (this was filmed and
rushed through editing) and ratchet up the emotion, these movies
should go straight to video, or a Mormon church near you. They aren't
effective outreach, or entertaining drama.


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