Despite such melodramatic flourishes as a near-disaster on a storm-tossed sea, a violent attack on an apostate by a group of religious zealots, and a startling (albeit not entirely convincing) death by lightning bolt, Mitch Davis’ “The Other Side of Heaven II: Fire of Faith” is as tedious as rush-hour traffic and as bland as a communion wafer. It’s conceivable that this sincere but overextended tale of a dedicated Mormon missionary on assignment in the South Pacific might appeal to many of the faithful who flocked to its 2001 predecessor, “The Other Side of Heaven,” another adaptation (also written and directed by Davis) of an autobiographical book by John H. Groberg. But even members of that target audience probably will prefer home-screen viewing to a theatrical experience, since frequent usage of the pause and fast-forward controls can work wonders when it comes to making something this sluggishly paced more bearable.
In the 2001 film, Christopher Gorham played John H. Groberg as a recent Brigham Young University graduate who encounters and transcends challenges while spreading the good word as an LDS Church missionary in 1950s Tonga. Jean, his faithful fiancée played by then up-and-comer Anne Hathaway, stayed home in Idaho Falls, frequently writing letters and patiently awaiting his return.
“Heaven II” picks up the story a decade or so later, with John (Gorham again) now married to Jean (Natalie Medlock, taking over for Hathaway), and eager to return to his old stomping grounds — or, if you prefer, preaching grounds — as president of the entire Tonga-Fiji mission, a position that makes him responsible for 200 missionaries and 10,000 church members spread out over 40 different islands in three different countries.
Jean gets to go along this time, along with their five young daughters, and she conveys impressive amounts of serenity and support as he tends to his far-flung flock. (There’s never any doubt that John and Jean are true soul mates: They even like the same sort of poetry, as indicated by their shared appreciation for Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach.”) Unfortunately, there is trouble in this paradise that has nothing to do with any potential marital discord caused by frequent separations.
Viliami “Sione” Paletu’a (Ben Baker), a native Tongan, is a Methodist minister who commands and receives unquestioning loyalty from his flock, and doesn’t want any Mormon interlopers on his island. Indeed, Sione is so territorial, even dictatorial, that when his adult son Toutai (Alex Tarrant) merely expresses sympathy for a neighbor who has converted to Mormonism, he punishes the young man by burying him in sand up to his neck on the shore, and leaves him there overnight. Toutai manages to survive, but just barely, and some of Sione’s most ardent disciples are not at all grateful for this miracle.
Baker’s belligerent ranting is almost comical in its excessiveness, especially when contrasted with Gorhan’s genial underplaying, but his aggressively unpleasant character is the sole provider of dramatic tension throughout most of “Heaven II.” (Composer Christian Davis tries to dial up emotional intensity with overbearing music, much of it very loud, but that doesn’t help.) There isn’t really much in the way of suspense at all until writer-director Davis introduces a couple of third-act developments that lead to anxious vigils in a hospital for both John and Sione. And even here, there are no surprises.
Of course, you could argue that the audience gets fair warning right from the start that surprises are unlikely in any film so obviously designed to provide uplift and inspiration. In an early scene, one of John’s daughters pointedly asks her father at bedtime: “How come all your stories end happily ever after?” She might not know, but the makers of “The Other Side of Heaven II: Fire of Faith” certainly do.