The Mission
Reviewed in April 2004
Director: Roland Joffé. Cast: Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson, Chuck Low, Ronald Pickup, Asuncion Ontiveros, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Bercelio Moya, Luis Carlos Gonzalez. Screenplay: Robert Bolt.
Twitter Capsule: Dramatically stiff, politically misguided emblem of gorgeous but empty Reagan-era cinema

Photo © 1986 Warner Bros. Pictures/Goldcrest
From quite early on, Roland Joffé's The Mission feels as anachronistic, as self-indulgent, and as doomed to fail as its characters, those missionaries, slave traders, and colonizers who got up to all manner of destructive mischief in 18th-century South America. A coffee-table book that thinks it's a political history, a casually insensitive hack job that naïvely glows with its own proud intentions, The Mission at least doesn't lose time in showcasing exactly how and exactly how badly it will sell its soul to bourgeois Western audiences and to the British Society of Cinematographers. In the first and most memorable sequence of the movie, God's crew is having some hard times in the South American jungle: we see a white male cleric, stripped to the waist and lashed to a wooden cross, as he is immersed in a river by a cadre of Indians and carried by the current right over the edge of Iguazu Falls. Ennio Morricone's high-melodic and still-famous score crescendoes and keens right through the action, which the narrating voice of Father Altamirano (Ray McAnally) describes unironically as a martyrdom. Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his lenswork on The Mission, aestheticizes this violent act almost beyond recognition as such, crafting the scene into a gleaming, romantic pendant of exotic misadventure.

Allegedly, the narrative import of this scene lies in its chronicle of once and future violence: not just the actual killing of the missionary but also the fierce, implied resistance of the native populations to Christianity's incursion. Sounds like dark times ahead, and yet the tonal and aesthetic pulls of the scene couldn't be more different. Aurally, visually, and symbolically, it's like a literally wet dream of Regency cinema, and thus our first tip-off that producer David Putnam is in charge. Putnam's movies never seem too sincere in their surface indictments of past prejudice, or at least, their ripostes to specific cases of injustice sit uneasily, even hypocritically at odds with the lambent glow of imperial nostalgia that generally colors his projects. Chariots of Fire, to take a premier example of the Putnam Principle, is "about" the social biases, including epidemic anti-Semitism, that plague two British athletes in their training for Olympic glory. But it's not accidental that most people remember Chariots of Fire as the film in which hunky, golden-boy runners crash through the surf as the horizon hums to the Music of the Spheres. All the whispered conversation in the world, even when it's ugly, can't foreclose an opening like that, which is exactly the tradeoff Putnam seems to count on. The films seem to say the right things while you're watching, but the forceful assaults of music and image are totally in line with the beautifying majoritarian culture that's the straw man in the plot.

The Mission, simultaneously slick and sloppy, is conceived just as ambivalently, using most of the same tools to just the same cross-purposes. But the movie doesn't work as well as even Chariots of Fire does (i.e., half-well at best), because the descent into ideological complacency is even swifter and more drastic, and the wild disparity of themes and styles that Putnam hopes to gift-wrap into the background are just too messy to stay hidden. Shortly after the credits have rolled, Jeremy Irons—in the role of Father Gabriel, our avatar of the good Christian soul—scales the rockface beside the same waterfall where his compeer met a watery death. Irons reaches the verdant precipice atop and behind the falls and startles/entices the natives with his sweet-sounding panpipe. It is not long before his fellow men of the cloth (including Liam Neeson) have joined him in this remote outpost, eagerly welcomed by the natives themselves, and in literal and figural concert, they all set up the idyllic, melodic mission of the title. Bearded, brown-haired, barefoot, and beatific, Irons' pacifist missionary seems like less a servant than an embodiment of Christ; that sound you hear is of decks being heavily stacked.

Meanwhile, to silence the doubting conscience of the audience—who may or may not wish to remember that European religious enterprise was just as guilty as the economic apparatus in spreading disease, havoc, and political self-renunciation through the Southern Hemisphere—the film whisks us into a parallel, melodramatic plot in which one heavy-browed cur of a Spanish slave-trader named Rodrigo Mendoza kidnaps and coffles a host of the selfsame Indians: arrgh! All in all, though, it's not a great trip home for Rodrigo once he finds his main squeeze Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) making the beast with two backs with his own brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn), whom he promptly kills in a public duel. Actually, not promptly enough for my taste, since Robert Bolt's ham-fisted script and Roland Joffé's preposterous direction leave us way too much time to wonder what Aidan Quinn, the bluest-eyed actor in Hollywood's casting binder, is doing playing a character called Felipe Mendoza, and to marvel at how Robert De Niro, no less incongruous as the scurvy Rodrigo, filters all of his faux-historical dialogue ("So me you do not love!") through a Brooklyn accent as thick as a malted milkshake. Bodices literally heave before this silly bit of business is over, all of it leading to De Niro's arrest, imprisonment, and his dramatically convenient punishment of carrying a heavy load of armor up Iguazu Falls to the mission. Which he does, barefoot, bearded, get the picture. The Indians are understandably put out when he arrives, given his long career of mercenary violence and capture of their family members, but one of them quickly demonstrates the value of turning the other cheek, kicking Rodrigo's Sisyphusian load over the cliff-edge. This leads to a long spectacle of Robert De Niro crying and laughing through his tears, which is the scariest thing you're likely to see in a whole year of moviegoing.

If you'd like to keep count with me, I believe you will already notice three Christian martyrs in The Mission: a white saint, a Spanish penitent who converts after a week's hard labor, and another white guy who may never have seen the error of his ways but at least had the sense to die in picturesque fashion. Any dream you might harbor that The Mission is interested in the Indians evaporates as quickly as dewdrops in the Amazon: the second half-hour of the movie chronicles the joyous lifestyle inside the mission's parameters, where native children and their Jesuit stewards hunt together, play together, and swim in the pretty tributaries. Something like this always seems to happen with Robert Bolt's screenplays (think Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago): after laying out a fierce political crisis within an especially unstable impasse of global history, the movies quickly take a detour into picture-postcard scenery and/or the outright hagiography of at-best ambivalent crusaders. Of all the Bolt adaptations I've seen, Fred Zinnemann's A Man for All Seasons almost worked the best, because Zinnemann's almost unflappable lack of style keeps even the Renaissance-fair production design to a reasonable level of the background.

The Mission, by contrast, is florid and self-consciously gorgeous without widening its canvas to the Leanish proportions that might accommodate its aesthetic. As a result, the movie feels stunted and impatient with itself. The script pushes itself through several turgid scenes of exposition, which are meant to lay out why Spanish colonial lands are being bought out by the culturally ascendant Portuguese, how Vatican intrigues are inflecting all the land-trading, and how the reputedly "covert" maintenance of the slave-trade actually continues in the broad light of day. Many of the figures who populate these scenes, though, are hard to tell apart, and the formal relations betwen them are tough to suss out without a press packet in your hand. The whole set-up is like Rodrigo's sack of armor: a heavy load the script feels obliged to bear in order to get where it really wants to be. Which, by the way, is Eden, pure and simple. After all that set-up, it's shocking, or at least I wish it were, to see Joffé flatten the whole colonial predicament into a Genesis parable, where the celestial mountaintop tranquility of the mission is threatened and thwarted by the cynical brutishness of more worldly beings. It's the most simplistic possible way to tell this story, not just invalidating the more prosaic but historically accurate motivations, but also making the whole picture as naïve and intellectually irrelevant as the transgressions it means to condemn.

So when the Indians later take arms to protect their homestead, there's not a shot or a scene in the movie that reminds us that this isn't, in fact, their homestead, nor their arms, nor need it have been their battle to fight. Yes, the various murmurings from the opening sequences inform us that living in the mission was the only legally sanctioned way for the Indians to avoid enslavement—but The Mission views this loophole as more of a lucky break than a lesser of two evils. Isn't a little barricading and reassigning a small price to pay for the privilege of playing rock-the-boat with Liam Neeson, or painting lines on Robert De Niro's tummy? The film implies that it isn't. And yes, Ray McAnally's Father Altamirano, a papal emissary who is the quasi-narrator of the film, wonders in a voice-over soliloquy whether the indigenous population resents every European face they've ever seen, ecclesiastic and otherwise. But then, even this epiphany is heavily outweighed by several scenes of the tribe's children singing choral odes in heavenly Latin, which are photographed and sequenced as pure sensory sublimity. I don't demand that a film like The Mission be purely polemical, but some credible and consistent point of view seems not too much to ask. The tonal contradictions of this film are the emblems not of a refined and judicious historical outlook but of a quietistic, hopelessly romantic venture that wants points for being on the right side of a conflict it doesn't truly understand.

The real crux of the movie is why Altamirano sanctions the overthrow of the mission when all of his monologues profess that he knew better. Unfortunately, the film ascribes his act as inevitable allegiance to holy writ, then whisks him out of the movie almost entirely while his minions (including some enslaved Indians) do the evil work. He is aggrieved when he hears of the climactic massacre, but the aggrievement isn't illuminated or opened-up by the script. The massacre is awful, but also spectacular, with special emphasis on the deaths of Irons and De Niro (look, you knew it was a Christian-martyr movie). There is a pat coda in which the surviving children of the tribe return to the scene of the cataclysm and reclaim some of the debris, including a violin floating in the river. Altamirano, in a closing voice-over, tells us that history will be on the side of the honorable souls who are vanquished, and you'd think from the way The Mission sends these children into the sunset that the historical record bore out this prophecy. But since we know what the future of these tribal cultures really was, it's hard to justify this devotedly scenic film's decision to imply even a half-hopeful conclusion—and besides, it's pretty late in the game to cede center stage to the real historical victims, who've been pretty opaque and emphatically secondary through the whole preceding film.

Whether the failures of The Mission are primarily Joffé's, Bolt's, or Putnam's is hard to determine; it seems clear that there's plenty of blame to go around, especially since each man's filmography shows signs of the same wishy-washiness that attains its fullest form in The Mission. (For Joffé's part, 1984's The Killing Fields was markedly superior when attending to Haing S. Ngor's Cambodian refugee, but seemed just as decentered from the core of the material whenever it privileged Sam Waterston's American journalist.) Given the cacophany of accents and tones, the improbable saints and tin-type villains, and the fantasy gloss of regional and historical context, the only thing in The Mission that really survives as a spiritual entity is the landscape itself. Iguazu Falls, which later managed a nifty cameo in Wong Kar-wai's Happy Together, is a jaw-dropping marvel from any angle, and Menges gets 'em all. It would be nice to view these shots as honest achievements, but they're Mother Nature's more than they are Menges', and given the lame theological rhetoric and the appallingly disjointed action sequences they are meant to patch together, even these shots are corrupted by the thinness of the surrounding project. For all of The Mission's back-to-nature trappings, it's actually a perfect film for the Reagan-and-Thatcher era that produced it, easy to embrace if you agree to ask no questions and are willing to bathe in the pretty sights and sounds that a lot of money can buy. Otherwise, despite all the critical laurels this flick racked up in its initial release (see below), I think the right attitude is to just say no. Grade: C–

Academy Award Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture
Best Director: Roland Joffé
Best Cinematography: Chris Menges
Best Art Direction: Stuart Craig; Jack Stephens
Best Costume Design: Enrico Sabbatini
Best Film Editing: Jim Clark
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone

Golden Globe Nominations and Winners:
Best Picture (Drama)
Best Director: Roland Joffé
Best Actor (Drama): Jeremy Irons
Best Screenplay: Robert Bolt
Best Original Score: Ennio Morricone

Other Awards:
Cannes Film Festival: Palme d'Or (Best Picture); Technical Grand Prize (Joffé)
Los Angeles Film Critics Association: Best Cinematography
British Academy Awards (BAFTAs): Best Supporting Actor (McAnally); Best Film Editing; Best Original Score

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