Monday 17 December 2018

Movie Review: The Mission (1986)

A historical drama, The Mission explores the role of religion and colonization in the lives of South America's indigenous communities.

It's the 1750s in the remote jungles where Brazil, Argentina and Paraguay come together. The Guarani natives dispatch a Jesuit priest to his death over a waterfall. The replacement priest is Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), and he uses music to gain acceptance, and starts to build a mission with the help of other Jesuits including Father Fielding (Liam Neeson).

Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is a former military man and now a mercenary who captures Guarani for sale to slavers. After learning his lover Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) is now enamoured with his brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), Rodrigo falls into a severe depression. Gabriel emotionally rescues him and Rodrigo completes an arduous journey of penance and joins the newly created mission, eventually becoming a Jesuit priest himself.

Spain, Portugal and the Church vie for power in the region, and a new map is drawn up, placing the Jesuit missions in peril. Gabriel, Rodrigo and the other priests have to decide whether self-defence can be achieved through love or violence.

Directed by Roland Joffé and written by Robert Bolt, The Mission is inspired by real events, although the specific people and incidents are fictional or amalgamated. This is a multi-faceted story, starting with Rodrigo's reformation then expanding from the personal to the political. The Jesuits become pawns in a much bigger struggle, and the film carries echoes of all colonial conflicts where locals are victimized with shifting strategic priorities.

The Mission is a feast for the eyes and the ears. Joffé captures the beauty of an untamed jungle with lush greenery and magnificent waterfalls, the Guarani protected by seemingly impossible cliff walls. However, no barrier is imposing enough for the Jesuits intent on spreading the word of God, and overcoming nature's challenges is just another test to be overcome for the steadfast Gabriel.

Ennio Morricone contributes a majestic music score combining Spanish and native themes and instruments. It is rightly considered one of his most enduring works, and for the most part Joffé deploys the score judiciously.

The film's style does lean towards the heavy handed. With long pauses and stares, Joffé often triple underlines his key moments, eroding the sense of realism. Irons and De Niro play along, the two actors content to subdue most of their emotions and allow ponderous silences to speak volumes.

The settings alternate between the jungle experience and the nearby city where political machinations unfold, officials from Spain, Portugal and the Church carving up the continent with an eye towards unfolding alliances and implications back in Europe. The scenes of conniving and dealmaking are adequate, but The Mission is most at home in the wilderness.

The Mission finds an impressive climax, the definition of trust, loyalty and devoted service challenged at deeply personal levels. The questions asked are eternal, the answers elusive as ever.

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