Roland Joffé's 1986 drama The Mission is a lush, if maybe slightly undercooked, historical epic about faith, exploitation, and redemption. It stars Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel, a Jesuit monk who has traveled to the jungles of South America to build a church in a remote outpost. His assignment is up in the hills, above a massive waterfall that the previous missionary was dumped over. He was murdered and set adrift, lashed to a rudimentary cross, a sign of how much the Guarani tribe that lives there initially wanted to be converted to Christianity.
The Mission is set in 1750, at a time when foreign interest in this part of the world varied. In opposition to Father Gabriel's more humanitarian goals is Rodrigo Mendoza, played with a subdued fire by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is a slave trader, and it seems the only one bold enough to go that deep into the rainforest to kidnap the Guarani. After Mendoza kills his own brother (Aidan Quinn) in a dispute over a woman, the mercenary seeks his penance in Gabriel's monastic order, giving himself to God and helping to build the mission where the locals will worship.
Unfortunately, just because Mendoza has stopped rounding up the natives doesn't mean that the threat is gone. Both Spain and Portugal have interest in the slave trade and the natural resources found in this land, and they don't appreciate the missions creating productive farming communities that compete with their bottom line. The Papacy, hoping to secure the Catholic Church's position in the region while also maintaining power back home, sends a Cardinal (Ray McAnally) to sort the situation out. Though he presents himself as having an open mind and is even moved by the conversions he sees, he ultimately gives the land to Portugal and orders the various missionary outposts shut down. The Guarani don't want to leave, and despite the threat of excommunication, the monks decide to stand their ground, as well. Only, the two men split once again. Gabriel will put his trust in his faith and stage a peaceful protest; Mendoza will pick up the arms he previously renounced and fight. Who will be more effective?
The Mission is a gorgeous movie. It was shot on location throughout South America, with real Indians performing as the movie's extras. Joffé and cinematographer Chris Menges, who won an Oscar for his work, embrace the majesty of the rainforest and the mighty Paraná River. Their awe of the wild landscape is infectious, and the widescreen photography looks phenomenal in high definition. Watch it on a big TV, and you will feel as if you have taken an expedition to the Amazon. It's an immersive experience, particularly with the way Ennio Morricone's vibrant orchestration further envelopes you. This is a movie that dazzles the senses.
I didn't feel quite the same way about the characters, however. The script is by Robert Bolt, who wrote most of David Lean's more famous historical epics, and though The Mission matches those in scope and ambition, it lacks the soul of a movie like Lawrence of Arabia. I mean that in multiple ways, too. Not only did I not feel like I got to know the characters very well or understand exactly what made them tick, but I didn't feel Joffé was able to communicate the spirituality that was essentially the main motivator for everyone. In that kind of environment, and with cold-hearted capitalists serving as enemies to the pure intentioned, it should have been easy. Yet, while the villains are broadly drawn, the heroes seem like mere sketches.
The actors are not at fault for this. The two leads, in particular, inhabit their roles with convincing purpose. Jeremy Irons is soft-spoken and warm, and his expressive eyes carry many scenes, particularly as his communication with the Guarani is either silent or in the untranslated native language. The script fails Father Gabriel in the final portion of the movie, not giving enough attention to his crisis of faith, instead throwing the narrative support behind Mendoza. This rough beast represents the real arc of the movie, going from a calculating egotist to penitent and then somewhere more in the middle, when he must stand up and act with purpose. De Niro is fantastic, squashing most of the easily imitated mannerisms that he is known for, and delivering a cerebral performance. Mendoza is meditative--a thinker--and when you watch De Niro, you can see the wheels turning in his head. It may also be that I identify with his character more than I do Gabriel, who arguably shies away from his personal responsibility in the destruction of a people. Even if one accepts that he had good intentions, his presence in the jungle is as violent an invasion as the Portuguese marauders.
Which I suppose is where the real thematic resonance of The Mission lies: the rich political subtext. By being offered these two men as our identifying figures, Joffé and Bolt ask us to wrestle with our own conscience. Which would we be? The idealist who embraces nonviolent protest, or the one who acts when circumstances demand a response? It could be that neither option is ideal. The only thing that is sure is neither worked for those caught in the middle.
The Mission comes to Blu-Ray as a 1080p high-definition transfer, with a 2.4:1 aspect ratio. The image quality is stunning, with lots of depth and an incredible amount of detail. Surface textures and skin tones are crystal clear. This is a film heavy with natural atmosphere, and every drop of water, every inch of mud, comes through nicely. Colors look good, and the blacks are strong. I didn't see any digital clean-up, there is a very light grain that keeps the movie looking like a real film.
The original soundtrack is mixed in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio. It's a fairly good mix, with lots of bombast, particularly noticeable when the crashing waterfall or Ennio Morricone's music fills the speakers. There isn't too much by way of subtle background effects, most of the main audio is up front, but it does move to the back from time to time.
Alternate language options are a French dub in 2.0, and subtitles in French, Spanish, and English Closed Captioning.
Most of the technical specs match the 2003 two-disc special edition release of The Mission, and so too does the bonus section match up with that disc. Meaning, Warners has ported over:
* Roland Joffé's full-length audio commentary
* An hour-long episode of the BBC series Omnibus, focusing on the production and giving fascinating background on the Guarani people.
* Theatrical trailer.
The Mission is a thoughtful historical epic that may be light on characterization, but is filled with big ideas and even bigger landscapes. Anchored by marvelous performances from Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro, this story of conflicting European interests clashing in South America in the 1700s has a lot brimming just under the surface. Director Roland Joffé effectively recreates the period, shooting on location in the rainforests and staging elaborate scenes of both everyday life and conflict. The BD presentation is great, looking marvelous and keeping the extras from the previous DVD release in play. Recommended.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent project is the superhero series It Girl and the Atomics and the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.