Beyond the Gates of Splendor [2005]

While the primary lesson of Beyond the Gates of Splendor is about the power of Christian love, this extraordinary documentary transcends its missionary message with a universal tale of cultural exchange, murder, and the ultimate act of forgiveness. After establishing that the Waodani Indians in the Amazon basin of Ecuador had endured several generations of violent homicide among tribal neighbors, the film's central story begins to unfold: As American missionaries discover the Waodani in the mid-1950s, their Christian outreach goes smoothly until 1956, when lies and misunderstandings lead to the spear-killing of five of the missionary men whose wives and children--including narrator Steve Saint (whose father was among those killed)--responded to tragedy by living peacefully among the Waodani over the decades that followed. Through home-movie footage, photographs, and eyewitness accounts by American and Waodani alike, this incredible-but-true story of love and understanding unfolds with considerable power, urging the viewer to consider the meaning of this remarkable example of unified humanity. Is the missionary impulse a pure and beneficial one? Are the Waodani best left alone and ignorant of the wide world beyond their village? With deep tragedy, rich humor, and an overwhelming sense of compassion, writer/director Jim Hanon ponders these and other questions, hampered only by an overbearing score (by Ronald Owen) that's lushly beautiful at best, but too often maudlin, manipulative, and shamelessly heavy-handed. It's likely that Christian viewers will be most deeply affected by the film's thematic parallels to the lessons of Christ, but anyone with an ounce of compassion will be similarly moved and astonished. Not surprisingly, Hanon later dramatized the factual events of Beyond the Gates of Splendor in his 2006 feature film The End of the Spear. --Jeff Shannon

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