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kenmorefield

The Least of These (2019)

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It is an unfortunate byproduct of American evangelicalism's hyperbolic persecution complex and its leaders too-often casual relationship with truth-telling that stories of persecution in other cultures too often engender suspicion and skepticism rather than compassion or indignation. 

The Least of These thus begins with two strikes against it and an unfortunate typo in the opening credits and a montage of news reports about violence against Christians in India almost got me to turn it off. I'm glad I didn't. 

While the film is an admitted hagiography of Graham Staines (Stephen Baldwin), an Australian missionary who worked with lepers in India, it also about the awakening of Manav Banerjee (Sharman Joshi), an Indian journalist determined to secure a livelihood by exposing the (illegal in India) practice of offering inducements for religious conversions. It is Banerjee's story that dominates the first half of the film, one which provides a welcome and necessary context for the violence while drawing a portrait of various social forces in tension in contemporary India. 

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Perhaps the best part of the film is Banerjee's growing discomfort with at being asked to play the role of a Christian in order to uncover evidence that Staines is violating the laws by offering inducements to converts. The promise of a full-time job and the conditional offer to pay his pregnant wife's medical bills are themselves exactly the sorts of inducements that Indian society condemns the missionaries for. But Banerjee can't find evidence that Staines is violating the laws, and it thus becomes his own hypocrisy, not Staines's, that forces him to reevaluate whether Christians are evil imperialists or whether that is simply a convenient label placed on them by those in positions of privilege who do not wish to see their own power challenged. 

Staines works with lepers. In an early scene, he wades into a crowd, Jesus-like, and carries away a leper threatened with physical violence. Banerjee is frightened and repulsed by the lepers, at one point jumping out of Staines's jeep when he realizes he is riding with a leper. The missionary assures him that the other passenger is not contagious, but some fears simply run too deep. 

The second half of the film is not quite up to the first. It insists on telling (through expository dialogue) what the film has already more powerfully shown. The music gets increasingly treacly, and it starts looking and sounding like a Christian movie. 

Those criticisms acknowledged, I was surprised that there was a lot here to recommend the film. Baldwin is fine; he has a role that doesn't stretch him too far, simply calling on him to be quiet, earnest, and sincere. Joshi is able to keep Banerjee's conflict's front and center without overselling. His awakening is gradual, and he does fall back into self-serving behaviors and rationalizations throughout the movie. (For example, after a conflict in which he tries to grab a cross from a Christian baptizing an Indian, knocking the Christian onto a rock, he tells the police that the man broke his camera.) The film taught me some things I didn't know about India, and it powerfully illustrated how lies, slander, and gossip, even when rationalized by need or fear, can be as harmful as the sins we are quicker to condemn in those not like us or not part of our tribe. 

The Least of These opens in select American theaters on February 1, 2019, with an Indian release to follow in March. 

 

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