The Mission is a 1986 historical drama film directed by Roland Joffé and starring Jeremy Irons (i.e. Scar from The Lion King – sorry, I needed to get it out of my system <shifty eyes>) and Robert De Niro. Much as I did with Children of Men, I decided to follow through with a second viewing so that I could refresh my memory and properly provide my take on this movie. I have heard, read, and seen very mixed things about this film.
Some call it an under-appreciated masterpiece. Others call it a mixed bag. Some just don’t like it – like Roger Ebert, for instance (I read some of his review AND saw him name The Mission’s Best Picture nomination as the big Oscar mistake of 1986). After giving this film a second watch, I can say that I find myself stuck in a strange position in giving this film a score. On one hand, I really, really enjoyed it and think that it is a technical marvel.
On the other hand, it is far from a flawless picture.
Anyway time for a (semi)quick synopsis of this film. The story is about a Jesuit priest, Gabriel (Irons), who establishes a mission (hence the title – get it?) in colonial South America. He is shown to have succeeded where his martyred predecessor/protégé had failed, in a large part through his oboe and ability to assuage the distrusting natives with the holy language of music. Of course this does not mean the natives are protected from intrusion from the outside. This is where Roberto Mendoza (De Niro) comes in with his American accent. He is a slave trader/mercenary who must eventually redeem himself with the help of Gabriel after he murders his brother, who has been having an affair with his wife.
Mendoza then works toward redemption – depicted through his ‘bearing his cross’ of armor and swords that he drags with him up to the mission before one of the native children severs the bundle (his past) and kicks it over the edge of the cliff and into the river. Thus in one scene we get Mendoza’s redemption, and the native’s forgiveness of Mendoza’s past.
All is well until the Catholic Church sends an official across the Ocean to South America to decide whether or not those natives living in the mission will be protected from slavery once Portugal takes over control from Spain, as the former had legal slavery while the other had it illegal (though it still happened, as evidenced from Mendoza’s past profession). Much like Joffé’s other film The Killing Fields, the second half of this film takes on a far different tone from the first. The Spaniards and Portugese advocate in favor of slavery while the Jesuit priests and missionaries try their hardest to defend the native people.
It tackles a whole range of issues. The film questions the morality of the Church, especially when it is revealed that the official had already made up his mind to surrender the missions over to the Portugese, meaning the church had effectively abandoned the native people. This leads to a schism between Mendoza and Gabriel over what the true Christian “thing” to do is. Mendoza thinks they should fight, while Gabriel prefers peace and even condemns Mendoza’s actions before his own innocence dwindles away and he is left to question the place of love in the world, and then wonder if he even wants to live in a world where such love cannot exist.
Like I said up above, on a technical level this movie is absolutely breathtaking. Chris Menges’ cinematography, which rightfully won him the Oscar, provides some of the most beautifully lit shots put to screen. Not only does he take full advantage of the lush South American landscape for wide-shots, but he also does a fantastic job with smaller shots. Some of the my favorites included scenes in which a character stands/sits in a lit room while being framed by a doorway shrouded in darkness. It was subtle, but gave the film some additional character and variety, which prevented it from being filled with nothing but sweeping landscape shots. Don’t worry, though, lovers of nature there are still plenty of scenes that fit into the category of ‘sweeping wide-shots’, especially of waterfalls. Good Lord if you’re ever looking to convince somebody to travel to South America show them this film. They’ll be clamoring for plane tickets before the credits roll.
It seems to be popular knowledge that Ennio Morricone was robbed of an Oscar for his soundtrack to this film. When I first watched this movie I thought the music was good, but I expected a bit more after hearing about how great it was. Upon rewatch, however, I found myself to be far more impressed. It was, indeed, an Oscar-worthy work.
A smaller theme of The Mission was the power of music. One character even said that “with an orchestra, the Jesuits could have conquered the entire continent.” Because of this, it was imperative that Morricone delivered one hell of a soundtrack. Thankfully, he more than succeeded. The rest of the technicalities – costumes, production design, sound – are all great. Keeping all of this in mind, even if you do not think the story is as tight as it ought to be, it is easy to see why The Mission received nominations for Best Picture and Best Director.
The performances were mostly good. Jeremy Irons is fantastic as the very by-the-holy-book, overly idealistic Gabriel. Of course circumstances result in him questioning his faith in humanity and love (he remains a man of God until the end), but what could be a stale, generic depiction of a disenfranchised man of god is given new life thanks to Sir Irons. The dude can act. But we all knew that….
Sorry, sorry…to easy.
Though it is pretty neat to see Irons playing a man of God. After all, his most renowned roles are villains.
Aaaaannnyyyway. Moving right along…
De Niro is solid, though it is somewhat true, as Ebert said, that he did not give as powerful of a performance as we are used to from him it still fit the movie well. Also the sword fight scene between him and his brother was, admittedly, quite bad. But one questionable scene does not make or break a movie.
Mendoza’s redemption was a bit rushed, but it was still quite hefty in terms of impact. Still, the jump from his introduction as a character, to his murdering of his brother, and then his redemption as a human being was, in my opinion, a bit jammed in. Perhaps this is why it could have worked better as either a longer film, or two separate movies – unlike The Killing Fields which I actually think worked best as a single film.
Outside of the main two characters, as well as the Church official, character development was a bit too scant. Liam Neeson’s (yep, he’s in here) missionary priest character is in many scenes, yet he really does not show much in terms of development and, or, personality. He is just there. The Spanish and Portuguese advocates are one-dimensional villains who are irredeemable, though Mendoza does mild this bluntness as he does go from being on their level to being a good person. The natives did not have much development outside of being mostly innocent beings, save for the beginning when a priest is tied to a cross and floated down the river and over a waterfall.
So unlike Children of Men, where I fell over my keyboard gushing about its brilliance, The Mission is a flawed film, but it is a flawed film that still manages to be both impressive and engaging. It is hard to deny the remarkable effort that went into making this film. It has its flaws, but I still think that those interested in film should check it out at least once in their life – if for nothing else, just to appreciate its beauty. It also raises good points on the relationship between the church and state, and the religious conflict of peace versus war.
I bought it, and do not regret doing so. Despite my issues with the story I will very likely watch this film again in the future. If you’re looking for a film that involves natives fighting colonial powers, please watch this instead of Avatar.
P.S. Got a chuckle when Jeremy Irons says “We’re not a democracy father – we’re members of an order” as I couldn’t help but imagine the irony of Scar saying such a thing.
Okay I’ll stop now.