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Friday, January 7, 2011

Movie Review: The Other Side of Heaven

A co-worker lent me her copy of "The Other Side of Heaven" a week ago, and I finally had the chance to watch it.  The movie is based on the real life Mormon mission of John H Groberg, an LDS general authority, who taught people in the Kingdom of Tonga, a group of islands near New Zealand during the 1950s.

I've seen several LDS movies so far, and this one would rank as my least favorite. I highly recommend "States of Grace: God's Army 2", which depicts missionaries as people with real problems and how everyone, including the elders, needs God's grace. I love the final scene in the film.

If you haven't seen it, here's the trailer:

Back to "The Other Side of Heaven."

My main problem with the film was that, at times, the narrative skipped over important details that I, as a viewer, wanted to know.

For example, Elder Groberg wakes up one morning with bloody feet and is told that a rat had bitten the soles of his feet during the night.

The villagers inform Groberg that his feet need to be baked in the sun, and they quickly set up a contraption similar to a tipped-over chair for him.

Several questions popped up in my mind, pulling me out of the story, because no one on screen addressed them.  Groberg blindly accepts their doctoring without a peep, which was hard to swallow given the quirky cure.

How was baking them in the sun supposed to help? Why didn't he wake up when the rat was gnawing his flesh? But more importantly--why didn't we hear about this before? His mission companion quickly states, "I told you to keep your feet covered!"

As a writer, that really irked me because there should have been an earlier scene where we specifically heard this advice. It would have been an excellent opportunity for foreshadowing. Instead, the scene felt thrown together.

The beginning of the film also made a big deal of how the missionary was supposed to learn the Tonga language. Instead of learning it from his island missionary companion--which would have made sense--Elder Groberg isolates himself on an islet and spends each day and night reading The Bible in English and Tongan.

I don't know about you, but I find it very hard to believe that he could learn how to pronounce words simply by reading them. When I see Spanish, a language I studied in High School, I often don't pronounce it correctly without hearing it.

During this phase of the story, Elder Groberg acts like an ascetic monk, who eats, breaths, and sleeps (though he is only shown sleeping once) The Bible.

He hardly recognizes the villagers as they bring food to his islet because he is stuck in a kneeling position intently learning the language. Miraculously, he emerges with a near-perfect understanding in Tongan, but the filmmakers make a strange choice in their depiction of events because a scene or two later all the natives are suddenly speaking English.

I think some type of transitional element should have been added to show that Elder Groberg didn't need translation anymore. It just felt strange that all the natives who we needed subtitles to understand a minute ago were speaking fluent English. Once Elder Groberg leaves his monk-like state on the island, language problems are eradicated in a single swoop, which felt a little too easy a fix to me.

Another problem that pulled me out of the story was when a father brings his dying son to Elder Groberg to heal him.

At first the elder doesn't know what to do, but somehow he comes up with this strange method of massaging the young boy's back chanting, "Out with the bad air, in with the good," and the child wakes up healthy as can be. We never learn how or why Groberg comes up with the method, but at that point, it became clear that I was watching a hagiography

Throughout the film, I was curious to see how much LDS doctrine would be revealed, and the answer was not much. In fact, Elder Groberg could have been a member of any Church because nothing he taught or believed stuck out in the least. The movie doesn't mention Joseph Smith or the Book of Mormon once, just a vague reference to "God's plan of happiness" where Jesus is mentioned once.

Although Elder Groberg gives baptisms, we're never "in" on what lead up to them. The first time the movie mentions an investigator, Elder Groberg--in a voice over--already states that the young man wants to be Mormon. We never really learn why. Although there's a romantic subplot in the film, the relationship that felt the most powerful to me was the one between Groberg and his Tongan missionary companion.

There's a touching scene where Groberg asks why his companion believes in the church, and the companion tells a story about how missionaries had saved his father from being an abusive husband.
Watch it here:

The film does have a few genuine laughs. I love it when Groberg goes to what must have been the Tonga equivalent of the UPS store to get a message from the Mission President and finds all the women there crying. He asks what the message was, and one of them hands over an envelope that's clearly been opened while telling him, "This is confidential." The bad news was the it was time for Groberg to go home.

In real life Groberg became a high ranking leader in the LDS Church and returned to the island several times with his wife.  I was surprised to learn that some of the islanders eventually moved to America.

There's a bittersweet scene in the film where the natives wheel out a large radio for Elder Groberg's going-away party, and they all listen to a 1950s radio program.  It was nice to see them have some technology on the island, but it was sad to realize that Groberg, and people like him, weren't just bringing religion to the Tongan people, but also western culture that would forever change the prestine community.

Despite some of the movies setbacks, it does illustrate how one person can change the lives of others.  I can see how LDS viewers would appreciate the film because it's a feel-good movie about one of their own, but the lady who owns this movie admitted she knew next to nothing about the Mormons.  I can see why.

While it's clear that Groberg brought religion to the Tongan people, his lessons are never fleshed-out.  The converts line up like dominoes, and we get a sense that something good is happening without exploring what that good thing is.


  1. I have seen this movie and I can see your perspective. I want to read the book this was based on and see if anything was just edited out for time's sake or if this movie is an accurate portrayal of his book. I did enjoy the movie though. But I inferred and assumed a lot because if my LDS heritage.

  2. The events themselves were powerful, but in some cases, I think they could have been portrayed better.

    In some ways the LDS Church comes off a little rotten in the movie. Other than Elder Groberg and his companion, the Mission President is a strict bureaucrat who later repents, and every missionary who's supposed to meet with Groberg is hours late, in one case leaving him on a dock for days.