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SUNDANCE 2022 World Cinema Documentary Competition

Review: The Mission

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- Young Mormons head to Finland in Tania Anderson’s doc, intent on following Cinderella’s mother’s advice at all costs: “Have courage and be kind”

Review: The Mission

There is something inherently absurd about a bunch of well-meaning Mormon kids being shipped off to Finland, of all places, putting in the time and learning the incredibly difficult language just to add a few more members to the local branch. And yet nobody questions this in the Sundance-screened The Mission [+see also:
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, a portrayal so sympathetic it’s almost suspicious.

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It would be easy to expect yet another accusatory portrayal of a religious community regulated by rules and taboos – especially one that has been ridiculed for years now, even before the South Park guys made a musical about it. Debuting director Tania Anderson doesn’t do that at all. She doesn’t follow anyone who has doubts about the logic of this entire endeavour, picking protagonists who are so damned nice that it’s easy to start cheering them on after a while. It’s unknown whether Anderson herself is religious, or how she got the camera-shy church to collaborate, but she gifts them with a massive PR win. If you can swallow that concept, it makes for fun viewing.

For any non-religious person, watching this is bound to be a conflicting experience. The kids (addressed here as “Elders” or “Sisters”) engage in some discussions – where they want to convert, some Finns prefer to pervert – but there is a line that they simply don’t cross, repeating the same old stories in a new language. They also clearly take advantage of some people’s desperation and solitude, and why wouldn’t they? Although tasked with changing someone’s entire spiritual viewpoint, they are not experienced “professionals”, and their ability to talk about religion, or even life, is limited. Why the church is not sending its best people to do “God’s work” is never really explored here and perhaps calls for another investigation. It also explains why some of them struggle.

And yet – and this is probably the single most interesting fact revealed here – going abroad on a mission is not a chore; it’s a privilege. It’s one that families, not the church, are expected to pay for. It’s an expensive rite of passage, the equivalent of a gap year, an adventure that earns you some respect later on and a plaque in the church. There are a few mentions later on about the experience being “revelatory”, but it’s hard to buy it sometimes. After all that effort, the kids want to feel special, but they just keep on perpetuating the myth of the mission. Those who didn’t quite make it – one boy is forced to finally address his mental-health issues and come back home – are left to feel like they failed.

“People don’t see what we go through when we are not on the street,” says one person, and honestly, you still won’t – Anderson is kept at arm’s length in this film, let in on just some of the secrets. All these doubts aside, it’s still hilarious to see them interact with Finns, so famously reserved that they respected the boundaries of personal space way before the pandemic. We’ll bet you a reindeer this might be the only film in recent memory where they don’t come off as that polite, running away from the kids and hurling some moderate invective at them. It’s a terrifying concept, frankly: stopping perfect strangers to tell them about God, day after day, or pat their dog if it happens to be a pug. Nobody talks to people on the streets any more – but they do. And sometimes they give you a free ice cream, too.

The Mission was produced by Danish Bear Productions Oy (Finland) and co-produced by Dirk Manthey. Its international sales have been entrusted to Autlook Filmsales GmbH.

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