When I saw the list of the Academy Awards’ Best Picture nominees, I thought, “Which of these movies would be most useful to Mormons?” And the answer I came up with was Tár.
Which seemed strange. After all, we have Avatar: The Way of Water, a movie about a family—and Mormons love families! We also have Everything Everywhere All at Once, which ends on a very family-centered note. And we have The Fabelmans, which is largely about . . . a family! So why would I choose a movie about a lesbian orchestra conductor?
Probably the thing that launches the most faith crises in the LDS Church is when someone finds out that various historical figures were much more complicated than Sunday school lessons make them out to be.
See, in Mormonism, the value of a life is measured in how well it can be an example of righteousness. Think about the stories told in various official LDS channels (general conference, church curriculum, those emails they send around, etc.). If a historical figure is brought up, it is because they can teach some value—whether promoting a positive one or warning against a negative one. Lives are valued according to their teaching potential.
This comes out in how Mormons are taught to keep journals. We don’t keep journals for ourselves, we keep them for our posterity. And the job of our entries is to teach values to our descendants through our experiences.
So, when we find out how deeply Joseph devastated Emma with polygamy, it really throws us. Joseph was supposed to be a guileless revelator of truth. When we realize how ruthless Brigham could be in his kingdom building, it makes us reinterpret everything we learned about him in Sunday school.
In other words, Mormons approach lives with judgment, whether approving or disapproving of them. We are trained from the beginning to do so, and we tend to stick with it before, during, and after a faith crisis.
Tár provides excellent training for escaping this automatic judgment. But first, spoiler alert!
Here we have a towering character. A woman who can draw extraordinary music from an orchestra. Lydia Tár (Cate Blanchett) charges everything around her with her commitment to, and genius for, great music. And she has made it to the top of the pile, directing the Berlin Philharmonic.
The odd thing is, the beginning of the story presents her in such a way that—though we admire her, though we are astonished by her, though she compels us—we don’t feel a personal connection to her. She’s like a piece of brutalist architecture that takes our breath away, that dominates the landscape, but does not invite us to come inside and live.
So, as we start to see other aspects of Lydia’s life—her cold, laser-focused politicking, her taste for seducing and abandoning her young protégés—we don’t feel like our hero is falling. We don’t feel the shock we felt, for example, when we learned that Emma caught Joseph frolicking in the barn with the teenaged Fanny Alger. Since the story did not require our heart to be invested in Lydia, it doesn’t break as her various aspects reveal themselves. We watch with impartiality as she becomes more and more complicated.
We see how she cultivates excellence in her orchestra. We see how she becomes obsessed with a new protégé. We see her defend her daughter at school. We see her sideline another conductor. We see her rapturously watching old videotapes of Leonard Bernstein’s music lectures. We watch her final humiliation, which she approaches with the same intensity and discipline she approached the Berlin Philharmonic with.
That Lydia is extraordinary is never in question. That she is complicated becomes more and more apparent as the story progresses.
I think Mormons would gain a lot from being able to approach their historical figures the same way, even if only temporarily. To be able to say, “Yes, that person was extraordinary. And complicated.” To allow the fullness of these people to stand before us, instead of only pieces. To escape the idea that we can only look with judgment. Which, strangely enough, is something Jesus taught. “Judge not, that you be not judged. For with what judgment you judge, you will be judged” (Matt. 7:1–2).
It may help us to begin seeing the fullness of the people around us. And, with practice, hopefully even our own.