The Mission (1986)

ROLAND JOFFE

Bil’s rating (out of 5):  BBB.5

United Kingdom, 1986.  , , , , .  Story and screenplay by .  Cinematography by .  Produced by , .  Music by .  Production Design by .  Costume Design by .  Film Editing by .  

The shifting sands of power see colonial rule and the church in a struggle for dominance over late eighteenth-century South America, and it is the indigenous populations of the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay and Brazil who are most negatively affected by it. ***Jeremy Irons plays a Jesuit priest who has managed to make contact with the Guarani, offering them protection on his mission whose lands belong to the church. Spain does not practice slavery, which means that when the lands are ceded to Portugal, it places members of the tribes in a vulnerable state to be exploited by their overseers.

***Robert De Niro is excellent as a Portuguese brigand who captures the locals to sell them to work on plantations, who learns that the woman he loves (***Cherie Lunghi) is in love with his brother (***Aidan Quinn). De Niro murders him in a jealous rage, thereafter plunged into grief and regret that inspires him to give up his life and join the Jesuits in penitence.

A church cardinal must decide on the fate of the protected church mission, allowing such places to continue to harbor the people of the jungle could bring retribution from the Portuguese, but closing the missions could destroy the lives of the people they are protecting. It is at this point that De Niro, who has been following Irons’ guidance on his way to becoming a priest, returns to his old violent ways, but this time in the name of saving a group of people he has come to love.

It borders on laughable to suggest that the church is the heroic force in the European destruction of the new world, there is little historical fact to back up many of the details of this story, but Robert Bolt (here writing his last produced feature screenplay) does manage to put together a rousing historical epic that never succumbs to audience-pleasing tactics like a soapy romantic subplot. For all its appealing characteristics, though, which also include one of Ennio Morricone’s most popular scores and Chris Menges’ gorgeous, Oscar-winning cinematography, the film is a bit high on its own sense of prestige and employs its brittle intelligence while also keeping an icy remove from its characters’ deeper emotional realities.

The locations make for stunning, awe-inspiring landscapes upon which to view human recklessness desperately trying to escape its own folly, lots of long shots of tiny, unimportant bodies against the everlasting power of geological wonders fill the eye with dread, but this film is too earnest to be educational and, in its encyclopedic detail, makes one long for the unhinged madness of ***Fitzcarraldo instead.

Academy AwardBest Cinematography
Nominations: Best Picture; Best Director (Roland Joffe); Best Art Direction; Best Costume Design; Best Film Editing; Best Original Score

Cannes Film Festival Award:  Palme D’Or

Golden Globe Awards:  Best Screenplay; Best Original Score
Nominations: Best Picture-Drama; Best Actor-Drama (Jeremy Irons); Best Director (Roland Joffe)

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