Wednesday, April 11, 2012


The Mission
May 16, 1986 (Festival de Cannes)
125 min

Directed by Roland Joffé
Written by Robert Bolt

Some go to films to be entertained, others go to be edified and possibly even challenged. “The Mission” is a film worthy of the latter creed. Performances and music aid the already ambitious account of drama in the jungle.

Winner of the coveted and prestigious Golden Palme at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival, "The Mission" does not attempt to be a “crowd pleaser.” Maybe that's why it won at Cannes. It is a historical drama with realistic characters, natural sways, and a fair amount of unpleasantness. Simply put, it is not here to merely amuse. What director Roland Joffé and his capable team have crafted is a beautiful look into a dark page from the history books, one rich in explorations of sorrow, forgiveness, and shedding ourselves of ignoble nature. It illustrates that repentance comes after an earnest effort. Some go to films to be entertained, others go to be edified and possibly even challenged. “The Mission” is a film worthy of the latter creed.

The film is set in South America during the mid-18th century. Robert De Niro (“The Godfather: Part II” and “Raging Bull”), now a legend in wide circles of contemporary American cinema, plays Rodrigo Mendoza, a Spanish mercenary who tromps through the perilous jungles working as a slave trader. His targets? The Guaraní: the native people of modern-day Paraguay and Uruguay. A character played by Jeremy Irons (who most of us have heard as the voice of Scar from “The Lion King”) also seeks the Guaraní, but for a fundamentally different reason: He is Father Gabriel, a Jesuit priest, who has come to convert the “savage” populous to come unto Christ.

It is through terrible circumstances on Mendoza’s part that he and Father Gabriel cross paths. As a means of repenting for a grave misdeed, Mendoza joins the Jesuits (you may recognize another priest as a young Liam Neeson) on a journey to one of their missions. The converted Guaraní call these sacred settlements home, which stand in stark contrast to the Spanish plantations. Mendoza’s initial trek to a mission is among my favorite sequences of the film. Rodrigo Mendoza is burdened with gear and supplies; we see the sweat of his struggles as he journeys up hill and cliff. It becomes clear that true atonement requires excruciating labor. By the end of it he falls to his knees, and in a sense, so do we. In a long career of memorable scenes and dialogue for De Niro, this will prove to be one for the highlight reel.

“The Mission” is not for general audiences. True to its dramatic genre it strides instead of sprints. Some scenes linger longer than modern audiences are accustomed to. For some it could be a laboring encounter. Furthermore, this is not a film for general audiences in terms of content. In addition to the expected ethnic nudity there are realistic depictions of violence. An older woman sitting in the row before me appeared to have a particularly traumatic time during such sequences. This questionable content is hardly glorified and I sincerely felt that by the end we were all better for having experienced this troubling tale. Like Mendoza, we can benefit from trials; I count distressing films like “The Mission” as such an opportunity. In short, wait until the children have gone to bed, they should seek this out when they are older.

The story takes us to “The Treaty of Madrid” where all Guaraní are legally considered prospect slaves. Due to this incitement the priests must make a choice: stand up and fight for the sake of the natives or peacefully protest. For Mendoza it is literally a question of whether or not he will take up the sword again, an act that left him in dire straights before. Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons give contrasting and compelling performances throughout “The Mission,” but it never means more than in the film’s third and final act.

The crowning achievement of this film is the musical score by Ennio Morricone. He has proved his capability to unite an orchestra of instruments and the human voice time and time again, most notably in the theme for Sergio Leone’s “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” He brings his expertise here with a score that feels appropriate to both the time and place of “The Mission.” From Father Gabriel’s oboe to the seeming chant of converted natives, it all rings true to the film’s narrative and themes. Diegetic music is used memorably in a few key scenes from the film, including when Gabriel is initially accepted by the Guaraní. It may not have garnered the rewards it deserved when it was released nearly thirty years ago, but it has since been honored and renowned, even ranking #23 in the American Film Institute’s 100 Years of Film Scores.

“The Mission” is widely available in movie stores and can be accessed on digital venues such as Netflix. For matured audiences, and those who can manage to sit still through a two-hour drama, it should not be a question of whether or not to seek out “The Mission,” rather, the question is “When?” My answer is, “Soon.”


CONTENT: violence and nudity

Updated 4.12.12


Galyn said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Galyn said...

This review sounds oddly familiar to me. As if I had already lived to read it days earlier. I think it was well written and the movie, well defended.