A few words about . . . "The Testaments" on DVD

The LDS Church has recently released its film The Testaments of One Fold and One Shepherd on DVD. The Testaments enjoyed phenomenal success playing at the Legacy Theater in the Joseph Smith Memorial Building in Salt Lake City since its release in 2000, though it has since been replaced by the more recent film Joseph Smith: Prophet of the Restoration (in December 2005). In these days of 3-5 month theatrical-to-DVD release windows, for any company to roll out the initial home video release of a film nearly seven years after its theatrical premiere is practically unheard of. (Of course, the Church is a nonprofit organization, and at $4.50 a pop for the DVD, it can hardly be claimed that the Church is reaping a tremendous financial windfall for its efforts.) For the most part, it’s been well worth the wait.

The film itself is a tremendous leap forward for the Church’s Audio/Visual Department. Compared to the embarrassing Legacy, the Church’s previous theatrical film effort from 1993, the actors are better (for one thing, they’re all LDS this time around, so the audience senses their characters’ conviction), the storytelling is much improved, and the production values are phenomenal. Locations are beautifully rendered, costumes are wonderfully detailed, and the cinematography is simply outstanding. There’s even some pretty impressive pyrotechnics on display during the film’s climactic destruction sequence. All of this is mostly well-presented on the DVD, though the awe-inspiring 70mm scope is greatly diminished no matter what size your TV. The soundtrack is presented in full Dolby Digital 5.1 sound, and the soundscape is lush with detail and capable of delivering some robust LFE (I never thought I’d enjoy hearing deep bass from a Church movie of all things, but it’s here).

The one thing which almost completely negates the technical excellence of the DVD presentation is an extremely poorly placed layer change at the height of a moving and intense depiction of Christ’s atonement. The action completely pauses for at least three seconds (depending on your player) and instantly takes the viewer out of the movie. For a 65-minute movie, there’s little excuse why it couldn’t have been placed in a less noticeable spot. For a DVD that’s been "done" for at least a year and a half (this from an employee of the A/V Department back in September 2005), I cannot believe that this mistake passed QC. Highly, highly annoying.

The film itself is not perfect. Most of the actors have difficulty expressing subtlety or complex emotions, but then the screenplay only expects them to act in very obvious ways. For example, the trial scene at about the halfway mark has always felt somewhat stilted to me, both in staging and in dialogue. Jacob’s conversion is a bit rushed, with insufficient nuance. Overall, the actors tend to do much better with physically intense scenes than with normal conversation. In addition, "good guys" and "bad guys" are painted with very broad strokes (no surprise character revelations await you here), and I’m really not a big fan of the little girl’s pet monkey, which appears to have been tossed into the picture appeal to a younger audience. The monkey is cute and all, but it really has no relevance to anything else in the film, and the character is tossed away with an absurdly funny line that hints pretty strongly that the writers were well aware of that fact. The ADR work is rather apparent, and becomes notably distracting in any scenes featuring children laughing – their voices seem unnaturally loud and physically separated from the movements of their mouths.

But enough about its weaknesses. This movie packs an emotional wallop, particularly in its closing moments. When exhibiting the film theatrically, the Church allowed audiences to compose themselves for a few minutes afterward with a moving rendition of "This Is the Christ" by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir playing in the background. (This piece can be heard by allowing the main menu on the DVD to play undisturbed, a creative touch by the authoring crew.) The actors who portray Helam and the Savior give standout performances. The film is well-paced (it never feels long) and tells an interesting story. And as I mentioned earlier, the technical aspects of the production are top-notch. And the production as a whole is light years ahead of Legacy, which is simply painful to watch these days. My quibbles aside, I’m proud to add The Testaments to my DVD library. (I’m still deciding what to do about Legacy.)

Thankfully, the Church’s A/V Department just keeps getting better and better. Its new Joseph Smith movie is by far the best work it’s ever done. I love it, love it, love it. Take the trip to see it at the Legacy Theater in Salt Lake (a superior theatrical experience) or at almost any Visitor’s Center operated by the Church around the world.  You won’t be disappointed.

Now that’s a film I can’t wait to own, on whatever the reigning disc format will be when it’s released (and I really hope we don’t have to wait until 2012!).

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