The Mission

February 13, 2012

The Mission is a big, serious film that’s very reminiscent of moral epics such  as Lawrence of Arabia, Dr. Zhivago, and A Man for All Seasons. In other words, the kind of intellectual, ambitious film that was popular 20 or 30 years ago but has become scarce of late.

The direct connection between The Mission (which won the top prize at this year’s Cannes Film Festival) and those earlier films is easy to identify: They were all written by Robert Bolt, who loves chasing after big moral dilemmas in exotic settings.

This time he’s in the South America of a bygone era of colonialism; specifically, deep in the jungle at a Jesuit mission that serves a remote tribe of Indians.

The first part of the film tells the story of a notorious slave trader (Robert De Niro) who kills his brother (Aidan Quinn) and feels desolate and suicidal afterward. He tells the Jesuit priest (Jeremy Irons) who visits that “There is no redemption for me.”

Irons disagrees. He believes in the triumph of the spiritual world, and suggests De Niro come to the mission to work and purify himself.

The journey to the mission is compelling: De Niro drags a collection of the relics of his past life—armor, weapons—behind him, as symbolic penance. When they arrive at the mission, the Indians, who might well have killed him on sight, accept him, and he settles into the life of a selfless Jesuit.

This is a strong sequence; but the rest of the film scatters its power. The central issue becomes a decision by the Spanish and Portuguese governments to alter their borders, thus exposing the Indians at the mission to slavery and annihilation. The emissary from the Catholic Church (Ray MacAnally) does nothing to stop this.

So, the Jesuits must decide. Do they disobey their church, takes arms, and fight? Or do they comply and let the Indians be slaughtered?

Bolt’s script is at once very ambitious and too simple. He skirts so many issues—the question of whether the Indians want Christianity in the first place, for instance—that the film pulls in a bunch of different directions, none satisfying.

And his two lead characters are almost embarrassingly symbolic: Irons, the man of obedience and belief; De Niro, the man of revolt and action. Their decisions are entirely expected, and not really illuminating.

Irons is fine, though not apparently challenged. De Niro’s work is curious. Since his dazzling performance in The King of Comedy, De Niro has taken a series of roles in which he seems bent on internalizing everything. The Mission continues this; he’s underplaying so intensely, if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms, that it’s hard to discern what his character is about.

This is the kind of script that, back in Bolt’s salad days, might have been directed by David Lean. Now, it’s Roland Joffe, whose first film, The Killing Fields, suggested that he might be the heir to Lean’s tradition of big, studied, respectable films.

Joffe, like Lean, likes to work on a huge palette. Many of the grand scenes are impressive: the crowds, the intense close-ups of De Niro’s spiritual anguish, and most of all the waterfall that must be conquered each time a journey is made to the mission.

The single most striking image in the film is in the pre-credits sequence, which shows a priest strapped to a cross, thrown into the river by the Indians, then dropping eerily over the falls. That haunting, inexplicable scene is the height of the film’s ambiguity; in most other matters, the answers seem all too simple.

First published in the Herald, November 14, 1986

An Oscar prelude week here at What a Feeling!, with reviews of winners over the next few days. This movie won for Chris Menges’ cinematography—duh—and scored a bunch of nominations besides. It has meant something to people through the years, but cinematically exciting it’s not.