The Mission (1986) dir. Roland Joffé
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Liam Neeson, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi
By Alan Bacchus
The Mission won the Palme D’Or in 1986, was nominated for a bunch of Oscars, but 25 years later the film’s lasting reputation seems to more about its score than the movie. Ask most people what they first think of when asked about The Mission and they’ll likely say that film with the great score.
Indeed Ennio Morricone’s music is beautiful, a grand orchestral epic feeling full for hypnotizing indigenous choral chanting. Unfortunately it sets a pace that the film itself just can’t keep up with.
The story finds a Jesuit priest Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) scaling up the impressively beautiful Iguazu Falls to meet up with the very remote and ‘uncivilized’ Guaraní peoples. After ingratiating Christianity to them they are rudely interupted by a hired mercenary/slave trader Rodrigo. Curiously the film cuts away from a violent attack back to Rodrigo in more civilized city setting wherein we learn of strife with his brother who has gone on and married his girlfriend. After a nasty duel Rodrigo kills his brother sending him into severe depression.
Enter Gabriel again who recruits him for a mission back to the Guarini to redeem himself and repent his sins. They journey up the falls and back into the welcoming arms of the peaceful peoples serves as a kind of rite of passage transforming Rodrigo into a man of peace. But with the aggressive Portuguese slavers encroaching on the land, Rodrigo rallies his new people in defence of land and God.
Another interesting note is that the screenwriter Robert Bolt, who penned the David Lean classic Lawrence of Arabia. Joffe has nothing on Lean though, but there’s similarities in the introduction of Western values and cultures on old world populations. Visually the location work in the jungles and rivers and the placement of the New World white men in with the Old World indigenous population of South America look echo John Toll/Terrence Malick’s work in The Thin Red Line and Werner Herzog’s Aguirre Wrath of God.
The film works best as a series of set pieces, which on their own are as powerful and epic as Morricone’s great score. The opening is stunning. Joffe and Bolt creates a powerful visual metaphors by placing their hero Gabriel next to the awesome power of nature. Sound and music and visuals combine to create one of the most beautiful opening scenes of any film.
Robert De Niro gives a typically intense performance as the hardened and doomed Rodrigo. It’s De Niro in his prime using his supreme skills in the Method, producing an inside-out physical performance, and with little words.
Despite De Niro, Joffe’s visuals and Morricone’s score Joffe never finds the heart of film. It all seems an admirable technical exercise without providing a moving transcendental experience we desperately need. By the end of the nearly three hours of The Thin Red Line, we know the narrative is scattershot but Malick enlightens us spiritually the final moments provide a pleasing wave of satisfaction. Although Joffe’s chosen subject is that of Christianity and religion, there’s no spiritual depth to the material.
Other than Rodrigo, the film is bereft of any other characters with adequate weight. Jeremy Irons doesn’t do much and the relationship of Gabriel and Rodrigo is sorely underdeveloped. Irons, for most of the picture, observes and we certainly do not see any inner journey across the arc of the story.
And so, recently rewatching the film on Blu-Ray confirms why, Palme D'Or notwithstanding, the film’s soundtrack rose above the rest of the film in prestige and admiration.
'The Mission' is available on Blu-Ray from Warner Home Video