Don Verdean, both the film and the character in it, has a good heart, and both the film and the character are also foolish. The film is about a Biblical archaeologist, Don Verdean, who specializes in finding obscure Biblical artifacts, like the sheers used to cut Samson’s hair and the pillar of salt that used to be Lot’s wife. Don’s goal in all of this is to provide empirical proof of the Bible’s veracity to both bolster the faith of the faithful and lure new converts to the faith. He really isn’t interested in fame. He just wants to save a few souls from Hell.
Everyone isn’t as genuine as Don. A couple of rival preachers see Don’s finds as a way of filling pews and offering plates. One of them hires Don to find artifacts for his newly christened museum. The other seeks to discredit Don’s work. Don allows these men to corrupt him, and he pays the price.
That’s a lot more plot description than I usually include in a review, but it’s really only the first ten minutes of the film, and as this film hasn’t played anywhere other than the Sundance Film Festival at this point, I think I need to lay this simple foundation before I can talk about what Don Verdean is about. You’ve probably already figured that out anyway.
On first glance, Don Verdean is a simple satire of a portion of the Christian population, and a mean-spirited one at that. The foolishness on display here is the myopic ambition of a specific religious impulse. Skewering the myopically ambitious is not new to Don Verdean’s helmers, Jared and Jerusha Hess. They also made Napoleon Dynamite and Nacho Libre, most famously. Both of those films are full of people whose ambitions far outmatch their abilities, audience, and context. Don Verdean is no different. He and his colleagues are a group obsessed with providing empirical evidence for faith in a culture that no longer requires it and won’t believe it anyway.
However, like the characters in the Hess’s previous films, the characters here all have such good hearts. The film makes fun of their ambition, not their faith. Two of the most ridiculous Christians in the film also show the most grace. Don himself is finally stripped of his ambition and find his faith stalwart underneath. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t include a character who is both faithful and who doesn’t require empirical proof, so the love the Hess’s have for these people gets lost a little. The film affirms little. It mostly just pokes fun. It’s a fun poking-fun, but nothing more.