The timing of “The Shape of the Moon” is coincidental and probably fortuitous, as far as the film is concerned. It is a documentary about a Christian family living in the world’s largest Muslim nation — the nation of Indonesia, which since Dec. 26, 2004, has been the focus of the world’s humanitarian efforts after the devastating events there. Some of the places shown in this film no longer exist. How’s that for putting the film’s characters in perspective?
But in many ways, the recent tragic events make the film more compelling. Though the Christians are occasionally the focus, the movie is mostly a slice-of-life piece on Indonesia itself, as director Leonard Retel Helmrich draws us vividly into a world most of us have never seen. It humanizes an exotic, faraway place — a crucial thing to do at a time when people are considering donating money to help that place.
Helmrich paints a picture of squalid living conditions, starving alley cats, and fervent anti-U.S. protesters amidst the ordinary devout Muslims. The local newspapers warn of the threat of “Christianization” — a threat probably more real than imagined, but one that might inflame anti-Western attitudes even further.
In the midst of these Muslims lives Rumidja, an elderly widow who practices Christianity quietly and humbly with her adorable young granddaughter Tari. She donates money to the local mosque during a fundraising drive, and she even incorporates some Muslim traditions into her life. She has the appearance of someone who was born Muslim and subsequently converted to Christianity, though we are not told whether that’s the case. Rumidja’s son Bakti isn’t particularly spiritual in any direction, but he does finally convert to Islam so he can marry his Muslim girlfriend. (Probably not the best reason, but better than not doing it at all, right?)
The “Christian in a Muslim Land” angle doesn’t get the attention it deserves, but the film excels at bringing us graphically into this foreign land. We see characters doing mundane things like eating and sleeping, and while those scenes aren’t particularly interesting separately, they combine to make Indonesia an unforgettable, tragically real place. It is an engaging travel brochure for a place most of us would never want to visit.
B (1 hr., 32 min.; Indonesian/Javanese with subtitles; )