With the replacement House Speaker Republicans were finally able to agree on a reported religious zealot who uses an app so he and his teenage son can monitor their mutual lack of online porn intake… well, our nation’s march towards becoming a theocracy just took a big step.
Yes, it is sometimes hard to differentiate between the true believers and the con artists faking belief to woo the “evangelical vote”—but does it even matter? Even when someone is as obviously play-acting as Trump, the probable Presidential champ at Commandment-breaking, that demographic is still willing to overlook all glaring hypocrisy. After all, their own faith frequently makes room for such self-justifying absurdities as “prosperity gospel,” a concept rather dramatically at odds with everything in the Bible they supposedly live by. These people are basically inventing their own Christianity, and its cult-like properties as well as strong desire to control others’ lives is one more thing currently eroding US democracy.
Even earnest religious fanaticism with altruistic intent can have disastrous consequences, as illustrated in The Mission, a National Geographic release that premiered locally at Doc Stories last week, and opens at the Opera Plaza and Rafael Film Center this Fri/10. This film by Amanda McBaine and Jesse Moss, who also co-directed the excellent Boys State (2020), probes a classic case study amongst modern-day evangelical pursuits gone terribly wrong.
In 2018, 26-year-old Oral Roberts University grad John Chau realized his longtime dream—a better term might be “obsession”—to bring the Gospel to arguably the most isolated people on Earth. That would be the Sentinelese, a tribe living on North Sentinel Island in the Bay of Bengal. Having apparently absorbed from neighboring tribes’ fates that nothing good ever came of contact with the outside world, they’d successfully repelled nearly all prior efforts over many decades’ course, ranging from colonialists to anthropologists. Since 1956, the Indian government has made access illegal, rare authorized exceptions aside. Coast Guard boats patrol at a respectful distance, making sure no one disturbs the elusive, tiny (probably under 200), unwelcoming hunter-gatherer populace.
Yet Pacific Northwesterner Chau, his head filled with both Jesus and adventure derring-do (he’d been an enthusiastic childhood consumer of “wild man” tales from Robinson Crusoe onward), managed to circumvent the obstacles intended to keep people like him out. He persuaded area fishermen (also evangelicals, apparently) to ferry him near the island, under the cover of darkness. Then he paddled solo via kayak to its shore. Notably, on his first approach, tribesmen fired an arrow into the Bible he was holding aloft—sending a very clear “No thank you, go home now” message. It is not entirely clear what happened when obstinacy or faith or whatever led him to a subsequent second approach, particularly as his body was never recovered. But that time, the rejection was fatally assertive.
At a glance, one might be inclined to laugh at the blindness and/or stupidity that leads a person to barge in where they are demonstrably not wanted. But The Mission doesn’t have much “I told you so” schadenfreude. In plentiful home movies, friends’ videos and other material, Chau seems a natural leader—athletic, enthusiastic, charming, empathetic, high-minded, undaunted by hardship. He was no faker. There may have been some degree of what’s often now called “main character syndrome” at work, in his drive to be savior to the remotest, most resistant pagan flock imaginable. But this was nonetheless a quest leagues away from your average digital-age narcissism; he really thought he was following God’s calling.
I’m not a huge fan of organized religion, and even Chau’s own father (a non-evangelical Christian refugee from China’s Cultural Revolution) worried about the hazards of his son’s fervor. Still, one takeaway here is that Patrick Chau’s death was more than a personal tragedy. While he was badly mistaken in thinking he had what the Sentinelese needed, there is little doubt that had he lived, he would have made the rest of the world a better place—with charitable works and activism of a non-democracy-threatening ilk.
While he left a fair amount of life documentation behind, including a diary whose excerpts are read by an actor on the soundtrack here, The Mission reaches well beyond biographical reconstruction. It uses a variety of old travelogue and exploitation footage (hubba-hubba! topless pygmies!) to question how “primitive” peoples have been misrepresented in the name of education, salvation, ethnography and entertainment. The belief that western “civilization” benefits everyone is disproven by the long line of cultures destroyed, its would-be inheritors thrown recklessly onto the path of imported disease, poverty, and despair.
Who’s to decide that an utterly self-contained tribe with its own language and customs would be “better off” after exposure to “civilization”? Let alone the abstraction of an invisible foreign god? You have to give the Sentinelese credit: On some level, they’d come to understand that even strangers bearing gifts (as did Chau) might lead to their ruination, and should be chased away—or worse, if stubborn.
The Mission works on a lot of levels, from the aesthetic pleasure of its extensive painterly animation sequences to the variably questioning, sometimes humorous input from commentators. Those include relevant academics, fellow worshippers, Indian government officials, friends and family members—although some directly involved in the case are absent due to lingering legal issues.
The adventurous exoticism Chau sought is illustrated by clips from old movies and TV shows, the slippery slope of documentary reportage itself by such dubious “mondo” obscurities as Cannibal Island. There are also bits of retro missionary propaganda (1972’s Peace Child), and even a self-indicting National Geographic oldie or two. (It is also worth mentioning that North Sentinel Island is so “uncharted,” it was used as a model for the complete fantasy of the big ape’s home turf in King Kong.) There’s a lot to digest here, all of it compelling. But perhaps the most poignant and acutely relevant lesson to be learned from The Mission is that a person’s faith can be true, yet its application so, so wrong nonetheless.
Also seeking spiritual sustenance in a way is the protagonist played by Jesse Eisenberg in Manodrome, which opens in limited theaters this Fri/10 and reaches On Demand platforms Nov. 17. Ralphie is a thirtysomething upstate New Yorker with a lot of chips on his shoulder. He recently got laid off from his job, and is struggling to pick up the slack as a ride-share drive—rin which capacity, a la De Niro in Taxi Driver, he witnesses a lot of entitled behavior from passengers he resents and/or loathes. He pumps iron at a gym, yet seems easily intimidated by (literally) bigger men there, including an African-emigre Adonis played by Sallieu Sesay.
He does have a supportive girlfriend (Odessa Young as Sal) who’s pregnant with their child, an unplanned pregnancy he’d begged her not to terminate. That doesn’t stop his being increasingly queasy about whether he can handle the responsibility of parenthood, financially or otherwise. Sal says “We both come from shitty places,” but whatever monsters lurk in Ralphie’s past, he has yet to truly face them. Worse, his repression has that Travis Bickle quality of a ticking time bomb that might well explode in any unlucky bystander’s face.
Thus he’s vulnerable to overtures from the mysterious titular organization his friend Jason (Philip Ettinger) connects him to, a Proud Boys-type assemblage of disgruntled and discarded dudes under the charismatic leadership of “Dad Dan” (Adrien Brody). The latter tells Ralphie, “You have that look…like nobody ever showed up for you.” Bingo: He’s correctly identifying the newbie as someone in desperate, lifelong need of a paternal authority figure who can bolster his own fragile self-worth.
Never mind that as the admitted veteran of three failed marriages, Dan himself is hardly a model to emulate. But then, he’s offering a collective retreat from the “gynosphere” (!), in which women are to be removed like a cancer in order to create some kind of purist masculinity cult. Its members even announce out loud the length of their celibacy to date, just like AA meeting attendees tallying up how long they’ve been sober.
Ralphie isn’t at all sure about this stuff. Isn’t Sal the best thing, maybe the only good thing, in his life? Not to mention that imminent baby. Still, he’s already so close to the precipice, it doesn’t take much to push him over.
Writer-director John Trengove’s prior feature The Wound (2017), made in his native South Africa, was a powerfully simple, cogent drama that touched on many of the same themes—racism, homophobia, ritualistic male bonding, violence, the anxiety and insecurity stirred by society’s ideas of what’s sufficiently “masculine.” Perhaps because he’s dealing with a less familiar culture (let alone grappling with the insane US politics attached to those issues at present), Manodrome is much, much less effective.
Like Magazine Dreams, the Jonathan Majors film currently in release limbo because of its star’s legal woes—he’s facing trial for domestic violence—Trengove’s film uses a dim-bulb, bodybuilding malcontent as a lightning rod for all the insecurities fueling toxic masculinity’s sociopolitical impacts in our culture right now. And like that movie, it neither develops the antihero character or addresses the surrounding issues in a way that adds up to more than a hyperbolic hot mess.
It’s interesting to see Eisenberg. almost always cast as some type of garrulous “nerd,” instead portraying a monosyllabic working-class joe. He makes an admirable effort. However, a lesser actor more stereotypically suited to the role might’ve made it more credible—while Trengove and star sympathize with Ralphie, the script leaves him a contrived abstraction. His rages (which eventually accrue a body count) come out of nowhere, as do other melodramatic actions.
Similarly, Manodrome itself is an vague if intriguing muddle that gestures towards many US reactionary organizations, yet pretty much sidesteps their politics—which is kind of like making a movie about John Chau but leaving out the evangelical-Christianity part. What’s the point? This film half-makes a lot of interesting ones. But alluding to hot-button real-world issues isn’t the same as actually addressing them, not in a film that aims for a fairly realistic (rather than parabolic) tenor.
Manodrome ends on its least hyperbolic note, to graceful, even somewhat touching effect. But until then, it piles on contrary devices, some of a ripped-from-headlines ilk, without creating the organic character inner life or narrative that might unify them into a powerful statement of where Americans are and how we got here. The eerily prescient Taxi Driver still impresses almost half a century on because we understand how Travis Bickle—psychotic though he may be—is the destructive product of the society that shaped him. Ralphie remains a buffed-up stick figure indeterminately poisoned by a sampler plate of trends and traumas. It’s valid that he can’t make sense of this world. But it’s the film’s failing that we, and it, can’t make sense of him.