The Mission (1986)

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Review by Dirk of The Dirk Malcolm Alternative

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The opening moments of The Mission are one of those scenes that are often described as ‘iconic’, like “you talkin’ to me” or Marilyn’s frock blowing up. It features a priest strapped to a cross floating through white water rapids. The waters become more intense as eventually the priest ‘tombstones’ over the impressive Iguazu Falls. The Christian image of crucifixion is dwarfed by the mighty torrent of natural forces. Its an image that sets up the thematic concerns of the film perfectly and is so enduring that it was recently used by Steve Bell to illustrate David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference.

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In 1750, Jesuit priests brought God and culture to the native tribes living in the jungles beyond the rapids in South America. THE MISSION was a collaboration between producer David Putnam and director Roland Joffé who were riding on the success of THE KILLING FIELDS (1984). They were intrigued by a story about the clash between religion and politics. Despite its huge budget (for a British film) and its critical acclaim (it was nominated for a number of Oscars, winning one for its eye-catching cinematography) it has sat unwatched on my shelf for years. It was bundled in a De Niro collected box set, yet I never even broke its seal. I diligently watched all the other films in the collection, but skipped this one due to my deeply ingrained antipathy towards Jeremy Irons. I know, I know, I’m missing out on a number of classics due to this irrational aversion. There’s no particular reason, that’s how irrational feelings work, his acting style irritates me. Its not really acting, its talking; talking with an overly pronounced diction, like the Pet Shop Boys without the wit.

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He’s well cast here as the Jesuit priest who climbs the falls and charms the native Paraguayan Indians by playing his oboe. In no time he has them singing a requiem and has convinced them of the economic benefits of a cooperative economy: a bit like John Lewis with sacred hearts. His lisping, effete priest is an effective counterpoint to De Niro’s Rodrigo Mendoza who is capturing the native tribes people to sell as slaves to the Spanish Governor Cubeza.

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De Niro brings a brooding intensity to the role. Behind his dark eyes and impassive beard there is a smoldering capacity for violence. His wrath is unleashed when he finds his brother in bed with his lover. During a duel he kills him.

Irons meets De Niro again in a cell and offers him redemption by joining the mission. The fratricide is legal, as it was committed during a duel, but he is wracked by guilt. De Niro is effective at demonstrating Rodrigo’s mercurial pride – he was driven to kill his brother due to the apparent mocking of the people in the streets. However, there’s no real depth to the two roles – Irons and De Niro are a Yin and Yang, Peace and Wrath – to underscore the symbolic purpose, there follows a prolonged scene as Rodrigo climbs the muddy, drenched rocks, dragging his heavy bundle of armour and weapons behind him, only to see them drop into the river when the tribes people cut him free. soon learns humility among the people of the tribe and is able to empathise with their rituals and simple living. Irons convinces him to join the order at the end of an exhausting first act.

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Once he is fully immersed in the Jesuit society, the film really begins as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) arrives from Rome to adjudicate on the fate of the mission. A treaty has been signed in Europe to pass the land of the mission from Spain to Portugal. Ray McAnally’s character is the most fully realised as he manages to convey the the weight of the decision he has to make: hand over the missions as slaves or to see the international break up of the Jesuit order.

I’m grateful that I finally broke the seal on my DVD copy as it is a spectacular film with dramatic imagery and a powerful performance from De Niro (and a more satisfyingly subtle one from Ray McAnally). It also gives another dimension to the Morrie Kessler murder in GOODFELLA’s. He is played by Chuck Low, who is the ruthless Spanish governor. When Jimmy pounds his head, he is channelling the avenging spirit of Rodrigo.

Ultimately, the story creaks under the weight of the spectacle as there is very little substance to the thematic elements and the characters it portrays. It treats the native tribe as little more than an exotic backdrop, a little local colour, to illustrate a very broadly drawn story of the conflict between love and hate, both of which ultimately fail, as religion collides with politics that creates a murderous compromise. I am grateful that the blogathon gave me the opportunity to see this film as it may have remained unwatched forever. I now need to wait for the Cronenberg blogathon to unpack that unwatched DEADRINGERS DVD.

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13 thoughts on “The Mission (1986)

  1. Very fine work here, Dirk. This is a film that I recently got hold of again for a revisit. I think I was too young when I watched it all those years ago. I remember being spellbound by the imagery and the wonderful Morricone score but I think the bigger themes went right over my head. Can’t wait to see it again, though.

  2. Loved this review, very insightful. I like the pairing of De Niro and Irons here, both very intense actors. I do have a fondness for Irons, but I can understand not liking him.

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