Judge Bryan Byun once considered becoming a priest, but only for the free communion wine.
It takes a true calling to make faith a way of life.
As a newly-ordained young priest observes in the PBS documentary The Calling, practically the only times we hear about the clergy in the media are when there's a scandal in the church. The priests who do good work, the ones who sit with dying people in the hospital and console the suffering, don't make the evening news. And throughout the United States, one of the most religious, and religiously diverse, nations in the world, young men and women are preparing to heed the call of God and enter the ranks of the clergy.
The Calling, a four-hour documentary miniseries that aired on PBS as part of its "Independent Lens" series, follows seven of these aspiring religious leaders, from very different backgrounds and representing a range of faiths—Muslim, Jewish, Catholic, and Protestant—from their training to the beginnings of their professional lives. We watch as each of them struggles to reconcile and maintain their faith and sense of mission with their demanding religious education, the practical issues of being a professional clergy leader, and their personal lives.
The documentary takes a minimal, hands-off approach to its subjects; for the most part, we simply get to know them through their own words and actions. The producers clearly wish to subvert our stereotypical images of the clergy, and present a richly diverse set of characters, who range from Steven Gamez, a Tejano from San Antonio about to become a Catholic priest, to Bilal Ansari, a Muslim prison chaplain, to Shmuly Yanklowitz, an aspiring rabbi who's passionate to an almost manic degree about social justice issues.
It's fascinating to watch these people working their way through their respective religious institutions, and the very different experiences they have, even within their own faiths. One rabbi-in-training, Yerachmiel, approaches his spiritual career with the calm, dogged efficiency of any white-collar job search, cold-calling area synagogues and seeking career counseling from his mentor, while Shmuly spends most of his time visiting disaster sites and participating in political demonstrations.
The Calling follows the kind of uneven narrative course that only real life can supply. When we first meet Rob Pene, a native of American Samoa living in Redondo Beach, he's performing Christian hip hop at a correctional facility. Just as his story starts to settle into one of an eager young rapper bringing the Jesus message to the inner city, we learn that his father, the chief of his village in Samoa, has died, and Rob returns home to take up his father's responsibilities. We meet Shmuly's devoted girlfriend, only to have her disappear moments later. One of the most interesting subjects, Tahera, a fiercely strong-minded Pakistani-American Muslim who clashes with her conservative male fellow students, abruptly disappears from the documentary altogether, with no explanation or followup.
While the number of subjects makes it impossible in four hours to present more than snapshots of their stories, The Calling effectively conveys the difficulty of their chosen paths. Can their religious passion survive the rigors of church bureaucracies, the need to manage endless personality conflicts, and the enormous practical and emotional costs of assuming the leadership of a flock? Few of the aspirants ultimately find themselves where they thought they would be, and given what they're up against, it's easy to understand why. But no matter where they end up, it's a profound and moving journey.
The Calling comes to DVD with a clean widescreen transfer; video quality varies from scene to scene depending on the source footage, but for the most part is pleasantly vivid and sharp. Dolby stereo audio (English only) is crisp and clean. Extra features include a generous selection of additional scenes that help fill in many of the gaps in the main narrative.
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