Mission, The (United Kingdom, 1986)

June 27, 2009
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Mission, The Poster

Spoilers: This review speaks in specific terms about the ending of the film. If you haven't seen it and intend to do so, avoid reading beyond the first few paragraphs.

The Mission represented Roland Joffé's follow-up to his deeply unsettling directorial debut, The Killing Fields. In many ways, set as it is in the 1750s deep in the South American rainforests, The Mission was a more ambitious film, although the staid manner in which the story is brought to the screen limits its emotional power. Verisimilitude is unquestionably the production's standout characteristic. As much as in Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, The Mission takes viewers deep into the jungle along with the characters and abandons them there. Based on actual events, Joffé's movie represents a scathing criticism of religious politics and perhaps an indictment of God's inaction even in the face of genocide.

The year is 1750 and the Catholic Church's power is waning. In South America, territories belonging to Spain, which does not allow trafficking in slaves, are being ceded to Portugal, which does. Caught in the middle of this are the sanctuaries established by the Jesuits for converting and sheltering the local Guarani Indians. The Church must rule whether these Jesuit communities shall be allowed to remain or will be released to secular control. To decree the latter would allow Christian converts to be sold into slavery, but to take a position in favor of the former could be worse, forcing Portugal to abandon the Church, thereby weakening its position not only in the New World but in Europe as well. This is the backdrop against which the events of The Mission transpire.

The Mission focuses on three characters. The first, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), is the head Jesuit at a missionary built high atop a plateau in the jungle. The second, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), is an ex-slave trader who becomes a Jesuit in his search for redemption for killing his brother. The third, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), is the Pope's representative in South America, sent to the country ostensibly to determine whether Gabriel's mission should remain a place of sanctuary for the Guarani. In reality, he is present to rubber-stamp the decision for the Jesuits to withdraw from the area. However much this might prick his conscience, he sees it as his duty to protect the Church, and the Spanish and Portuguese officials involved know this is what the eventual decision will be, no matter how desperately Gabriel and Mendoza lobby against it.

The Mission is more engrossing when viewed from a "big picture perspective" then when examined on the basis of character-driven individual stories. The political intrigue underpinning the story is fascinating and the unsparing portrayal of what happens to the Guarani, who are virtually extinct today, is a stark reminder of the burden of responsibility that lies upon European settlers for these sorts of atrocities. On the other hand, none of the protagonists is particularly compelling. Gabriel is defined exclusively by his faith. He's a patient, gentle man with a deep wellspring of belief, but there's not much else there. Rodrigo is more interesting, especially since his eventual decision forces him to break with Gabriel (so he can take up arms to defend the mission when soldiers attack), but his motivation for becoming a Jesuit is weak. His backstory - killing his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a fit of rage over a woman - is presented sketchily and is not altogether credible. Arguably, Joffé should have allotted another 15 minutes or so to firming up Rodrigo's personality. The most interesting thing about Altamirano is his internal conflict, although it doesn't change his pronouncement.

The Hollywood formula would demand that Robert De Niro lead a band of Jesuits and Guarani in a rousing defense of the mission. Maybe they would fail but, as in 300, it would be a valiant, epic last stand. The Mission, however, was not made in Hollywood and that's not what happens. Rodrigo tries to mount a defense, but it's largely ineffectual. He dies a meaningless death, as does Gabriel. This mirrors the real-life events (although the specific characters are fictitious). The cavalry did not arrive. The Guarani were left to the mercy of the Spaniards and the Portuguese, who slaughtered them en masse and sold the survivors into slavery. In terms of the genre, this is about as big a downer as could be made, turning audience-pleasing formulas on their head. But that's the reason the film works. With a rousing ending, The Mission would be forgettable.

Joffé originally wanted to use the existing Guarani as the extras in the mission but discovered that those who survive were too few in number and too widely scattered to serve his purposes. To represent them, he temporarily moved entire tribes of South American Indians to the location where the film was shot. (When filming was over, they were paid and returned safely to their homes.) Not only had none of them previously appeared in a film, few of them had ever seen one. Joffé's dedication to realism caused him difficulties in communicating with these extras, who did not speak English and did not understand the "language" of movie production, but it paid off in the verisimilitude of what appears on screen. It's as if Irons and De Niro really travel into the Heart of Darkness. Chris Menges' Oscar victory for Best Cinematography almost isn't fair. Considering the vast, untamed beauty surrounding the production, how could he not have won? Even those who find The Mission to be slow and plodding concede that it looks great

The film features a heavyweight cast, although not heavyweight performances. The best of the bunch is Ray McAnally, who makes Cardinal Altamirano into a surprisingly sympathetic figure. McAnally was nominated for and won the Best Supporting BAFTA award. Jeremy Irons, who is okay - he's very good with these brooding, deeply thoughtful roles, received a Golden Globe Best Actor nomination but did not win. Robert De Niro, who is miscast and never really settles into the role, was not nominated for anything. His performance, which feels like a square peg in a round hole, is out-of-place. The Mission also features early career supporting work for Aidan Quinn (as Rodrigo's brother) and Liam Neeson (as a Jesuit).

In the wake of The Mission, Joffé's second consecutive critically acclaimed motion picture, the director's career inexplicably imploded. His next two features, Fat Man and Little Boy and City of Joy, were disappointing (although the latter possessed some emotional punch). After that, he fell off a cliff beginning in 1995 with The Scarlet Letter and concluding in 2007 with what is surely one of the 100 worst films of all time, Captivity. The Killing Fields and The Mission exist to recall that, at one point, he was a filmmaker with great vision and potential. Indeed, insofar as awards recognition is concerned, this was the pinnacle: the Cannes Palm D'Or, five Golden Globe nominations (two wins), 11 BAFTA nominations (three wins), and seven Oscar nominations (one win). The Mission is beautiful to look at, features impeccable period and setting detail, and offers a fascinating and tragic backstory, but it falls short in many simple human qualities. Overall, it's an impressive motion picture, but lacks the epic greatness sometimes associated with it.

Mission, The (United Kingdom, 1986)

Director: Roland Joffé
Cast: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson
Screenplay: Robert Bolt
Cinematography: Chris Menges
Music: Ennio Morricone
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:06
U.S. Release Date: 1986-10-31
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Violence, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2:35:1