The Saratov Approach ReviewNovember 2, 2013
Even if I am a member of the LDS Church, I can’t deny that Mormon cinema still has plenty of roadblocks to overcome before becoming nationally-recognized. There may have been some great successes along the way, such as Saints and Soldiers, along with the work of Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre), but there is nonetheless a lack of popularity for such films outside of Arizona, Utah, Idaho and other states with dense LDS communities. The question I now pose is will The Saratov Approach be a game changer for the LDS cinema, especially when considering the subject matter involves the true story of two missionaries who were kidnapped and held for ransom in Russia in 1998?
Elder Tuttle (Corbin Allred) and Propst (Maclain Nelson) were LDS missionaries who served together in Russia in 1998. One day while walking around the city of Saratov, a man named Nikolai (Nikita Bogolyubov) approaches them and asks if he could be taught. They answer yes quite triumphantly, and the following day they visit him at Nikolai’s apartment. There, the two elders are assaulted, beaten and handcuffed as they are subsequently abducted. Taken to a secluded cabin in the middle of nowhere, the two elders then question their faith and chances for survival as their captors demand a $300,000 ransom from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
If there is anything that The Saratov Approach has succeeded at, it would certainly be maintaining suspense. The script does well enough to make the missionaries and their captors sympathetic, flawed characters within this intense story, so the story is emotionally investing on that end. It is also notable that this film has the potential to entertain people of all faiths, especially when considering that most LDS films have limited reach (and that’s coming from a member). Furthermore, this inspirational true-life story has much for viewers to learn about faith and seeing the beauty in others, while I also predict this film being a successful vehicle for helping people understand the everyday hardships that Mormon missionaries suffer through.
What holds The Saratov Approach back from being great is not necessarily the story – rather, it’s the many ways in which that story is told. From the film’s opening the dialogue was in no way special or subtle, and throughout the film I felt like the script was continually spoon-feeding me – in other words, the film underestimates its audience’s capacity to figure out story details. Not only that, the dialogue also came across as hackneyed, cheesy and unrealistic at times. Otherwise, the film is certainly held back by how emotionally manipulative it is, which is certainly affected by its issues with perspective. I personally would have preferred to just see the story play out as it did from the perspective of the missionaries and captors, but continually the film cut away to the families and others involved. I felt that the message and emotional crux of the story often got muddled, certainly harming something that could have been great.
The acting was one of the better aspects of The Saratov Approach, though – generally these performances were grounded and avoided smothering the audience with emotion. Corbin Allred is a successful lead here, doing well to embody his character in a much more subtle way than most of his on-screen colleagues. His line delivery is especially good in one key scene where the music is dialed down and he is talking to Elder Propst, portrayed by Maclain Nelson. Nelson is also good here, but not on the same level as his peers. Nikita Bogolyubov fares well as Nikolai, one of the Russian kidnappers; he accomplishes what Barkhad Abdi does in the recent Captain Phillips – portraying his character in such a way that the audience will fear him, but also making him sympathetic. Though Nikita is not quite on that level, he still delivers a solid performance in that regard.
A key reason why The Saratov Approach isn’t as effective as it could have been is because of a misuse of audio and visual aesthetics. I don’t have as much of a problem with the cinematography as other people, even if the camera almost never stays still, for the director Garrett Batty does enough to emphasize the intensity of the situation at hand. There are indeed some odd choices of editing and a couple of shots were poorly done, but overall they don’t do much harm to the film as a whole. My main problem is the soundtrack. Yes, Robert Allen Elliott may have written quite an emotional musical score, but it’s too overwhelming in how it is implemented here. The music is simply manipulative, swelling in every moment that the filmmakers want to draw out an emotional response from their audience, but the exact opposite happened for me. To put it plainly, I had that emotional reaction in the few scenes where there was little to no music at all. In a movie that should be a consistently spiritual experience, that is rather disappointing.
I would still recommend watching The Saratov Approach overall, for it’s a story that certainly has a place on the big screen. Not only does it provide some genuine thrills, the story has the capacity to appeal to people of all faiths and about the daily struggles LDS missionaries. Even so, there remains a fine line between great material and how one goes about telling such stories; unfortunately, the team behind The Saratov Approach stumbled along the way in their dramatization of this particular story. This could have been the game changer that LDS cinema needs, but sadly that is still a standard that Mormon filmmakers need to work towards.