The year is 1750. Spain and Portugal were two of the great powers of the world, each with a foothold in the New World. By papal authority, these two superpowers avoided conflict by drawing a line across South America, demarcating which territories belonged to the Spanish and which to the Portuguese. But this land was already occupied, by people with no power to fight off the technologically advanced Europeans. What, then, would be the fate of tribes like the Guarani, who for generations had lived out their lives in isolation in the jungles of South America, before the coming of the missionaries and the slave traders?
In the midst of this fateful situation, the story of The Mission sets the Jesuit missionary Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) alongside an unexpected companion, the mercenary Rodrigo (Robert De Niro). The Mission follows them on a literal and emotional journey as each faces up to ideas of right and wrong, and is forced to make a difficult choice about what actions to take in a complex situation.
The Mission is visually stunning, all the more so because there are no "set pieces" that deliberately call attention to the scenery. That is, there are a number of scenes that are visually impressive, such as Gabriel's climb up the rock wall to reach the plateau above the falls, or any number of scenes along the river and its waterfalls, but these scenes appear in the film in a very natural, almost casual way, simply due to where the characters happen to be going or what they are doing. It's this sense of casual magnificence that underscores the land of the Guarani as a kind of "garden of Eden" in the eyes of the Jesuits.
This sense of naturalness extends throughout the entire film. Though it's certainly a period piece, and a very detailed and well researched one at that, The Mission is free of any hint of the self-consciousness that sometimes crops up in historical films. The actors seem entirely comfortable with their characters as people of the time, which is no doubt due in part to the historically appropriate script, in which the dialogue and the characterizations are always appropriate to the culture of the times; there's no hint of a modern point of view espoused by any of the characters.
Despite the tight historical accuracy of the perspectives offered within the film, The Mission subtly but quite effectively offers a multi-layered modern social commentary. The tragic irony of the film is the fact that the Guarani are in essence given a choice between two forms of cultural obliteration: literal slavery under the Portuguese, or conversion to Christianity and a more European way of life under the Jesuits.
Throughout the film, we see the subtle ways in which the Jesuits are shown to be conquerors in their own way. The Guarani are admired and respected insofar as their natural inclinations and abilities are channeled in directions that are acceptable to European sensibilities. The "model" Guarani in the lowland missions are clothed modestly and lack the colorful body paint of their free cousins; their craftsmanship is admired in the construction of fine violins, not native flutes and drums. Gabriel and the other Jesuits clearly have more respect for the lives and well-being of the Guarani than the Portuguese, and as such they are the heroes in the context of the film, but nonetheless they are only concerned with the well-being of fellow Christians; their help comes at the price of conversion to an alien religion and way of life.
Even more significant is that it would not even occur to any of the characters that this is a price that might be too high; it's a worthwhile consideration in the present day as well, when we see countless examples of one nation imposing its will on another with the justification of a "superior" culture. The Mission echoes with the crucial questions that its characters never ask: What gives us the right to feel superior to another? Where do we draw the line between helping a people improve their lives, and destroying those lives? In an early scene, we see the a graphic demonstration of the Guarani rejecting Christianity, which at that point is presented as setting a challenge to the remaining missionaries. Looking back, though, this scene can be viewed in a different light. Given the concluding events of The Mission, one might reasonably question whether Gabriel, in his firm conviction of doing the right thing, has perhaps done far more harm than good.
On a more individual level, The Mission also offers a thoughtful look at redemption and personal responsibility. Rodrigo faces up to his own guilt and seeks penance; given the events as they unfold, we might ask ourselves whether he achieves redemption in his own heart. An early scene foreshadows Rodrigo's situation: Gabriel asks him if he has the courage to attempt redemption, and Rodrigo counters with the question of whether Gabriel can accept the consequences of his attempting it and failing. Our attention is also drawn to the figure of the Cardinal; he might easily be dismissed as an antagonist, except for the fact that his character has been given the opening and closing narration for the film. His perspective forces us to acknowledge him as a human being attempting to do what is right, and denies us the easy way out of vilifying him and placing the blame for the situation entirely in his hands.
The Mission is a two-disc edition, packaged in a folded cardboard disc holder inside a cardboard slipcase. Warner here continues its tradition of inconvenient DVD case design, as The Mission is awkwardly slightly larger than a keepcase, and its cardboard construction is more susceptible to wear than a plastic case. At least the cover art is attractive.
The Mission simply looks stunning in its DVD transfer. Colors are handled superbly, with the subtle palette of natural colors in the South American jungle as well as the bright, rich colors of the scenes in the city and the lowland missions all perfectly captured. The film's award-winning cinematography sets up a number of very challenging shots in terms of lighting and contrast, and again the transfer handles them all perfectly. Even very dark scenes or ones with extensive backlighting are presented with the right amount of detail, and with the black level appropriately rich and dark.
The film as a whole is effectively free of edge enhancement; once or twice I might have caught a tiny glimpse of it, but for the majority of the film there's no edge enhancement visible. The film as a whole is crystal clear and sparkling clean: there's no noise visible even in the most challenging vistas, and no print flaws appear at all.
If you take into consideration that The Mission is nearly twenty years old, this transfer becomes even more impressive. The transfer is every bit as good as that of a first-rate modern film like The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, which had the luxury of going straight from filming to DVD; the care taken with the transfer of The Mission has really paid off.
I applaud the decision to make The Mission into a two-disc set. With the documentary nearly an hour long, having it on the second disc enabled the feature film to be less compressed on the first disc. With an average bit rate of over 9.5 mb/s (which is significantly higher than your typical DVD), it's no surprise that The Mission looks as amazing as it does.
The Mission's Dolby 5.1 track offers superb clarity throughout the film, from the quietest conversation to the most robust action scene. The sound is extremely clean, without any background noise or distortion. Ennio Morricone's haunting and lovely score is one of the strengths of the film, and the musical portions of the track are rich and well balanced with the other elements of the soundtrack.
The surround sound is the one area that falls a bit short. While the music and some of the background sounds such as the rushing water of the river are nicely balanced among all the channels to produce an immersive feel, that's about it as far as surround effects go. The sound effects are centered in the front channels, even during such audio-intense scenes as the battle sequence. Nonetheless, the overall audio experience is quite satisfying.
A French Dolby 2.0 soundtrack is also included, along with English, French, and Spanish subtitles.
The first disc of the set, in addition to the film itself, includes a full audio commentary track from director Roland Joffé. The other special features on this disc are fairly simple: cast and crew filmographies, a list of awards won by The Mission, and a trailer for the film.
Disc two contains a 56-minute documentary titled "Omnibus: The Making of The Mission," which takes a detailed look at the film's on-location work in South America. The emphasis of this interesting documentary is on the Waunana Indians who played the roles of the Guarani in the film; director Roland Joffé and others discuss how they worked with a fairly traditional Waunana community, following the ideals of equitable and respectful treatment of these people both in the making of the film and in their representation on the screen. The documentary is quite informative and well made, offering insights into the modern-day lives of the Waunana, and the still-heated issues surrounding their relationship to the outside world, along with an interesting look behind the scenes at the filming of the extensive South American location shots.
The menus are pleasingly simple and easy to navigate.
The Mission had been on my list of eagerly awaited DVD releases for a long time, and after finally watching it, I have to say it was worth the wait to get such an incredible transfer. The film itself is an involving historical drama, offering a compelling story of the consequences in human terms of the political maneuvering between nations, along with a very human story of conflict, redemption, and responsibility with the characters of Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) and Rodrigo (Robert De Niro). This DVD is highly recommended.