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The 2015 comedy Don Verdean has a warning for those who would smuggle biblical artifacts

Take note, Hobby Lobby.

Sam Rockwell and Jemaine Clement in Don Verdean
The wonders of the ancient world.
Fox Searchlight
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

Every weekend, we pick a movie you can stream that dovetails with current events. Old, new, blockbuster, arthouse: They’re all fair game. What you can count on is a weekend watch that sheds new light on the week that was. The movie of the week for July 8 to 15 is Don Verdean (2015), which is available to digitally rent on Amazon, Vudu, iTunes, and Google Play.

When the strange story of Hobby Lobby’s illegal smuggling of 5,500 artifacts from Iraq surfaced this week — along with the subsequent payment of a $3 million fine — it was impossible not to think it sounded like a movie. In fact, it sounded like several movies: maybe one starring Indiana Jones, or the early scenes of The Exorcist.

But for me there was only one analogue: Don Verdean, a film starring Sam Rockwell as the titular character. He’s a “biblical archaeologist,” which is like Indiana Jones except with a mission to strengthen the faith of the faithful with the artifacts he retrieves from around the world. I am the only person I know who enjoyed the film as much as I did — it has a mere 30 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

I attribute my delight with the film to the fact that as a kid, I went to more than a few conferences and services where characters like Rockwell’s were speaking. Presumably director Jared Hess (Napoleon Dynamite), who, along with his co-writer and wife Jerusalem Hess, is Mormon, did as well. It’s the only thing that would account for the film’s spot-on dialogue and humor, which skewers a handful of megachurch culture’s obsessions: growing the size of the congregation, providing empirical “proof” for various Bible stories, and supporting, emulating, and idealizing Israel.

In the film, Verdean was once a popular lecturer, but he hasn’t had a big find in a while and the well is drying up. He and his faithful assistant (played by Amy Ryan) are praying for some kind of miracle, and it seems to arrive in the form of a megachurch pastor (Danny McBride) who wants to pay Verdean to get major artifacts from the Middle East and bring them to his church — all for the sake of the Kingdom of God, of course. (He is also facing stiff competition from a competing local megachurch that is siphoning away congregants, partly because of the wow factor of its former Satanist pastor, played by Will Forte. Some fascinating authentic biblical artifacts in the foyer couldn’t hurt, right?)

Jemaine Clement, Amy Ryan, and Sam Rockwell in Don Verdean
Hunting for artifacts in the Holy Land.
Fox Searchlight

Verdean calls up his Israeli contact Boaz (Jemaine Clement), who sells him the “wife of Lot.” The biblical book of Genesis includes a story in which Lot (Abraham’s nephew) and his family are fleeing the degenerate cities of Sodom and Gomorrah as fire and brimstone rain down on them. They’re instructed not to look back, but Lot’s wife does, and is turned into a pillar of salt.

What Boaz sells Verdean is a vaguely woman-shaped salty rock that’s pretty obviously not the real thing, but no matter; Verdean swallows his misgivings and presents it to the wowed audience. As the story moves on, it gets more and more outlandish; at one point, Verdean does literally steal an artifact (with the intent to fake its origin story) and smuggle it out of the country.

But the other thing I like about Don Verdean is its affectionate approach to its characters. Verdean isn’t a particularly bad guy — he’s just a desperate one, and he decides the ends (a.k.a. the eternal salvation of souls) probably justify the means (stealing artifacts). We can see that his motives are pure, even if we’re inclined to give his whole occupation a long side-eye. The movie is a story of redemption, even though it ends less than happily for him. Ill-gotten gain is never good, even if it’s gain for God.

In all likelihood, the artifacts that were part of the Hobby Lobby smuggling debacle were slated for the Museum of the Bible, which the controversial owners of the crafting supply chain have funded and filled with their collection of antiquities, and which is slated to open in Washington, DC, later this year. It’s being billed as a state-of-the-art museum and the biggest museum dedicated to the Bible in the world. So maybe the connection to Don Verdean is stronger than we might think. Truth, in this case, is at least as strange as fiction.

Watch the trailer for Don Verdean: