Film Review: The Mission (1986)

Roland Joffé's epic film is well-meaning and technically superb.
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Robert De Niro in "The Mission" (1986)

Film Every Mountain

by Nicholas Glass

Roland Joffé’s epic film is well-meaning and technically superb. One’s optimism about the film springs from these production values. Most of the team from The Killing Fields is reunited – Joffé directing, cinematographer Chris Menges, editor, Jim Clark and David Puttnam at quality control. And they were all brought together to work on a screenplay by Robert Bolt. This is tantamount to getting George Best, Bobby Charlton, Pele and Maradona in the same forward line. Bolt’s screenplay, based on his original story embellished from history, has allegedly done the rounds over the years. The setting is mid-18th century Latin America. There are bodies and souls to fight over. On one side, Jesuit missionaries are busy converting the Indians. On the other side the colonial powers, Spain and Portugal, are involved in the slave trade. To do the story justice was always going to be expensive. And Puttnam and company have not stinted.

The Mission was shot entirely on location in Colombia and Argentina, and whatever problems that meant for film crew and equipment, the rain forest, the rivers, and the waterfalls make for a spectacular film. The motto seems to have been ‘climb every precipice’; it makes for a better panorama. Joffé has an eye for a memorable image: a Jesuit missionary is martyred by the Indians in the opening minutes. Garlanded with thorns and strapped to a crucifix of logs, he is returned down the rapids.

Like David Lean, Joffé is comfortable with visual narrative, letting the picture tell the story: a candlelit gathering of Indians is shot wide. They rise as one, hundreds of candles flickering in the darkness, as a solitary priest walks through them. All this looks great, but I would have liked a few more words. The Mission is two hours long. At a rough calculation, at least half of it is without dialogue. And after all, how interesting is Jeremy Irons to look at even when he has got something to say?

As Father Gabriel, Irons is the priest whose life is ‘inextricably entwined’ with that of the Indians. We first encounter him soulfully strolling about a violin class. Next minute he’s off into the rain forest to replace the priest who became driftwood. ‘I sent him, I have to go up there’: Father Gabriel looks determinedly at the sheer precipice above. The mountaineer, Joe Brown, appears in the credits as ‘supervising rock climber’ and presumably advised Fr Gabriel where to put his sandals.

Irons makes it to the top, taking with him, not coloured beads, but a woodwind instrument. The Indians aren’t totally enraptured with his playing – their leader neatly snaps the recorder in two over his knee – but inexplicably they don’t give him the early bath.

‘With an orchestra, we could’ve subdued the whole continent.’ This welcome edge of cynicism comes from the story’s narrator, the papal nuncio, Altamirano, splendidly played by the Irish actor, Ray McAnally. He has most of the best lines. And after a time, one began to long to hear him say some more.

Robert De Niro shares star billing with Irons. He’s cast as Rodrigo Mendoza, slave trader and mercenary, who comes back to town to find his woman shacked up with his younger and better-looking brother (Aidan Quinn). He doesn’t take too kindly to this. He says: ‘So me you do not love’; the words are as hard to absorb, as they were to deliver. Once Mendoza has got the gist, he swiftly disposes of his brother in a duel, gets mighty remorseful for six months, and then with Father Gabriel’s encouragement, imposes a penance on himself. According to my Swatch Quartz, this penance occupies about ten minutes of screen time, in which Mendoza ropes himself to a netted bundle of armour and proceeds to haul, heave, drag, and lug it through forest, river and of course, up the inevitable precipice.

It’s the Indians who put him out of his misery, initially thinking to sever his windpipe, but having seen the light (Fr Gabriel), they cut the rope and release him from his burden. Joyousness breaks out all over, with lots of hugging and laughter, and swelling flute music by Ennio Morricone to stir the heart and jerk the tear ducts. There’s a fair amount of joy around in The Mission. There’s also Mendoza’s introduction to the Jesuit Mission Station, his decision to become a priest (more hugging) and the visit of the papal nuncio. ‘The Garden of Eden’ observes Altamirano, looking about open-mouthed as his canoe is given the kind of welcome usually reserved for the Queen Mother. ‘It’s a little overgrown’ replies the beatific Father Gabriel, but that’s about the only concession made. This mission station looks suspiciously like utopia, full of happy natives, nubile giggling girls, a banana plantation with equitable profit-sharing and no flogging, and a magnificent church where the Indian choir is always in magnificent voice.

When crisis comes – and it takes an hour and half – we anticipate a big showdown between Father Gabriel, man of the cloth, and his only white convert, Mendoza. The papal nuncio has decided it’s politically expedient to abandon the mission stations to the colonial powers, but the Indians opt to stand and fight. What will the stars of the film do? Irons is stuck sotto voce, threatening to burst into tears. We know he’s the non-violent type, just as we know that De Niro as Mendoza is a man of few screenplay words, but one prepared for his rain forest Alamo, sword and musket in hands.

The film’s last half-hour – the preparations for the battle and the battle itself – is the most dramatically successful. The action alternates between a jungle ambush, a skirmish between canoes on the river, and the assault on the main mission station. Here Joffé makes good pictures again; the colonial troops scaling the precipice en masse; their Indian trackers, lying on the ground, balancing their bows on the soles of their feet and unleashing burning arrows into the straw mission buildings. Sometimes the images seem a little excessive; an execution by firing squad from one canoe to another; and a group of babies left struggling in the mud and rain as the colonial troops clear the square. There must be subtler ways of showing that some people are bad guys.

In case you hadn’t heard, The Mission picked up the prize for best picture at this year’s Cannes Film Festival, the Palme d’Or. At that stage, it hadn’t received a final polish, editing and sound. Now that it has, it is clearly a made-to-measure Oscar winner. Expect at least eight nominations in January. Joffé will make better films, but The Mission looks set to bring him more recognition, and a useful boost to the production company, Goldcrest.

The Literary Review, November 1986

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