Monday, May 30, 2011

Classic Film Review: Roland Joffe's The Mission

As a staunch non-believer I’ve only ever encountered two films that gave me a sense of what religious fulfillment is. Not that I was spiritually awakened or felt a desire to convert – nothing of the kind – but that the film was so skilled at conveying the significance of faith in God’s love without being preachy, that I understood through character development and acting what it is to find redemption and peace. And isn’t that what the vast majority of narrative cinema is about? It’s meant to provide you a glimpse into other people’s lives for a couple of hours and make you believe in their beliefs.

The first of these was The Mission, directed by Roland Joffe, and winner of the Palme d’Or at the 1986 Cannes Film Festival. I first watched it many years ago while I was in high school or college and I wasn’t sure if a second viewing so many years later would still produce the same effect in me. The difference this time was that I had greater appreciation for the craft of the film, which most likely subconsciously influenced my original belief that it was a great film.

Joffe directed the film from a screenplay by Robert Bolt, the scribe behind A Man for All Seasons and Lawrence of Arabia, from an original story idea about a Jesuit mission in 18th century South America. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, who leads the mission in its goal to convert and ‘save’ the Guarani Indians. Gabriel is a man of deep faith in God’s love and a true believer in the Christian ideal of turning the other cheek. Irons brings a measured fortitude to Gabriel, never revealing a strong emotion that isn’t directly connected to his faith and his belief in the humanity of the Guarani. There are other young Jesuit priests in his charge, including Fielding, played by a much younger pre-Schindler’s List Liam Neeson.

Gabriel believes his mission of San Carlos, situated above the almost insurmountable Iguazu Falls, is safe from intrusion, especially considering the agreements in effect between the Kingdoms of Spain and Portugal and the role of the Church, which has control over the land on which the mission is built. Gabriel first surmounts the treacherous waterfall after the Guarani have killed the first priest who tried to establish a connection to the Indians. Father Gabriel sits in the jungle playing his oboe, which apparently subdues the Indians into accepting him.

The oboe solo and the film’s score were composed by the great Ennio Morricone, who created some of cinema’s most enduring melodies and themes for The Mission. He combines traditional classical period European melodies with the sounds and instrumentation of South American Indians to suggest the connection forged between the two groups of people. Today that connection is inextricable as the vast majority of South Americans are an ethnic mixture of Iberian Europeans and Native Indians, mostly speaking Spanish or Portuguese as a first language. Morricone’s music is beautiful and occasionally haunting, as when the Guarani women and children are led in choral harmony by Gabriel while their mission is attacked by militant Portuguese and Spanish soldiers.

But now I’m jumping ahead. Some time after Gabriel has set up the mission, he encounters a local slave trade hunter, Mendoza (Robert De Niro) capturing Guarani. Gabriel asks him through the thick jungle, “So you’re hunting above the falls now?” This suggestion foreshadows the central conflict that comes later when Spain and Portugal sign the Treaty of Madrid which sets the boundaries between their respective territories and placing Gabriel’s mission inside Portuguese territory. The Spanish did not permit slave trading, but the Portuguese did. This presents an obvious problem for the Jesuits protecting and helping the Guarani.

Mendoza exists in the story as the antithesis to Gabriel. He is the might to Gabriel’s love. Returning to his plantation, the woman he loves admits she’s fallen in love with his brother (Aidan Quinn) and later in a duel, Mendoza the elder kills his brother. Untouchable by the law, he flees to self-imposed isolation where Gabriel finds him some six months later and encourages him to do his penance for his crime against God. In a powerful sequence, Mendoza hauls a sack full of armor and weapons up the mountain to the mission having it cut free from his burden twice. The first time Fielding frees him from his task, but Mendoza reties it and continues his climb. Finally, at the top of the mountain, one of the Guarani, in a symbolic act of forgiveness, cuts loose the rope that ties him to his old life and crimes. Mendoza then joins the mission and takes his vows to become a priest alongside Gabriel.

De Niro gives one of those performances that you point out to ignorant people who insist that he always plays the same tough guy and thug characters. True, Mendoza starts out as a mercenary, and the character requires the hard edge that De Niro brings to nearly every role, but then he makes a transition to faithful man of the cloth. It’s a very inward performance. Mendoza is a man of few words and De Niro uses his body to express the belligerence of his character’s early stages and the spirituality of the latter.

Mendoza is the heart of the film’s themes, namely the constant push and pull of love and war. When the mission faces potential armed destruction, he wants to take up arms in defense. Gabriel believes that peace and love is the only way to see God’s work through to the end. But although Mendoza is central, you can’t discount Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), who also narrates the film in the form of a letter to the Vatican being drafted after the events of the film have taken place.

Having been sent by the Church to investigate and make a decision about the fate of the existing missions, Altamirano is like the 18th century version of a politician on a fact-finding mission. He listens to plantation owners who desire the slave labor of the Indians; he sees the mission with his own eyes, in a sequence in which Gabriel allows the work and faith of the people in the mission speak for itself. Altamirano risks alienating the Portuguese and possibly fracturing the church in Europe if he rules in favor of the mission. His decision is made with a heavy heart. After the tragic end, he is told, “We must work in the world. The world is thus.” Altamirano reveals his knowledge of the truth through his own guilty conscience, “No…thus have we made the world. Thus have I made it.”


If The Mission has a significant flaw, it is in its failure to humanize and characterize any of the Guarani, who are mostly represented as a mass of anonymous individuals who either fight in battle, or sing in prayer. The King of the tribe has a single scene in which he stands up to the European authorities for himself and his people and there is a young boy who we see regularly, but who is given no lines of dialogue or any development. This is one shameful aspect of a film that purports to defend the Indians of South America and lay charges against their European conquerors. They are represented either as captive slaves or as faithful Christian converts. But what makes them convert? What is their view of Christianity, which I imagine must be a very different approach, perhaps one undertaken merely to achieve a peaceful stasis with the settlers.

I have to close by pointing out that one of the film’s finest virtues is its visual beauty. Chris Menges’s photography captures the exquisite beauty of the South American jungle and the enormity of the Iguazu Falls. Figures hiding in the jungle brush are as expertly lit as characters in dimly-lit interiors, which themselves are bathed in the warm hue of candlelight in magnificent night scenes. Such artful cinematography helps The Mission transcend the simple historical narrative. It’s nice when a film is able to pair a moving story with technical mastery.

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