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Prolific producer David Puttnam prolific broke through with the "art" exploitation movie Midnight Express and established his name as a maker of upscale "quality" films with Chariots of Fire. Probably due to its popular title tune by Vangelis, the movie won the best picture Oscar despite being obvious and dull. In addition to the marvelous Bill Forsythe picture Local Hero, Puttnam continued with a string of movies on lofty subjects, like 1984's The Killing Fields. His most beautiful and ambitious production is 1986's The Mission, an exotic historical piece directed by Roland Joffé (Fat Man and Little Boy). The film may be the prestigious example of big-budget liberal filmmaking in the '80s; it won the Golden Palm at the Cannes film festival.
In the 1700s, a group of Spanish Jesuit priests run a series of missions in the wilds of South America, where Brazil and Argentina meet. Savage tribes routinely kill priests that venture onto a high plateau above a series of enormous waterfalls. Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) wins over a tribe and establishes a new Christian outpost, despite the depredations of freebooting slavers like Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). Mendoza slays his own brother (Aidan Quinn) in a jealous rage, and to atone helps Father Gabriel and eventually becomes a priest himself. But ugly politics intervenes to destroy the idyllic, near-utopian perfection of the Jesuit missions. The natives work communal farms that compete with Spanish and Portuguese landowners on each side. These greedy competitors conspire to have the native lands annexed to Portugal, where slavery is legal, so that the communal plantation can be seized and the natives put in chains. Father Gabriel and novice Mendoza take a high-ranking Catholic emissary, Altamiro (Ray McAnally) on a tour of their missions, hoping that he will intervene in the dispute. Gabriel believes in non-violence, but the former mercenary Mendoza has no intentions of surrendering peacefully.
The Mission has everything needed for a David Lean-style epic: a sweeping historical subject in a distant and romantic place and time; a conflict that pits secular and spiritual interests against one another; ravishingly beautiful scenery and a fateful, hopeless battle against long odds. The story even takes on a mythical aspect, when Rodrigo Medoza's battle armor, abandoned in a pool at the base of a colossal waterfall, is recovered and prepared so that he can convert from a pacifist Jesuit to a fighting priest.
All that's missing is, as they say, "a little sex". The only woman of note in the story exits in the first act, and the balance of The Mission is a man's game of colonial politics.
Puttnam and Joffé assemble a dream team of key creative collaborators. The screenplay by Robert Bolt explicates the complex tropical power grab and the role of The Church without turning the movie into a mass of expository speeches. The Oscar-winning cinematography is by Chris Menges, who provided gloriously beautiful images for Local Hero, Comfort and Joy, The Killing Fields, Dirty Pretty Things and the unsung Andre Konchalovsky picture Shy People. The mesmerizing original score is by Ennio Morricone, his second of five Oscar nominations. Production Design (Stuart Craig) and costumes (Enrico Sabbatini) are also top-notch; although Englishmen and Americans play Spaniards, rather than fake the native characterizations the film enlisted entire tribal groups to play themselves. Robert Bolt's dialogue is so well stylized to the period, that The Mission's lack of authentic languages doesn't become obtrusive, a problem that sinks the otherwise well-mounted recent epic Love in the Time of Cholera.
Roland Joffé's measured, stately direction brings out everything needed to tell the story, which eventually finds its traction in the subtle conflict between Irons' Jesuit and De Niro's reformed warrior. We know that those rotten merchants will get their way politically, so the real issue is whether or not the two priests will put up a fight. Big muckety-muck officials from the Church of Rome usually get a free pass in older epic movies, like The Agony and the Ecstasy or The Cardinal, where they must make the best of unpopular choices. The Mission's Altamiro is clearly inspired by the holy paradise he finds within Father Gabriel's settlements, where the natives are granted the dignity of their tribal identities yet behave as model Christians, dutifully following wherever the wise Gabriel leads them. Imposed by politics in Europe, Altamiro's final, totally pragmatic decision comes as a big surprise, at least to American audiences. We expect kindly, enlightened churchmen to naturally choose the path of the angels, as in basic hokum like Boys Town.
The Mission wisely never loses sight of its audience, which comes to historical epics to enjoy epic conflicts that aren't entirely spiritual or political. The advertising image centers on the fate of an unlucky priest who finds himself tossed over the falls by natives that crucify him on his own cross. Thus the movie establishes the noble creed of the Jesuits, then only 200 years old, as they spread Catholicism in South America without force of arms. Jeremy Irons' Father Gabriel is nobody's idea of a weakling, and when he chooses non-violence his conviction carries a moral commitment that we can feel. Rodrigo Mendoza takes the oath of brotherhood but cannot deny his essential character -- he's an emotional and focused man of action, and willing to stake his life on immediate matters of conscience. Rodrigo cannot control his rage when his brother and sweetheart declare their love, and he is compelled to torture himself by hauling his armor up miles of muddy hills, to Gabriel's mission. Gabriel can force Rodrigo to deliver a humiliating apology for speaking out during a meeting, calling the merchants the liars that they are. But when the Spanish mercenary troops invade, Rodrigo reverts to his true character, preparing for battle and organizing the tribal chief to oppose the enemy with guerilla tactics. Except for his brief time under Father Gabriel's guidance, Rodrigo is a man of the sword. By contrast, Father Gabriel is introduced playing an oboe, and he doesn't react when the Indians break it in two.
Puttnam, Bolt and Joffé's movie earns its place as a lost-cause liberal epic. The good guys have a rough time of it, but "we feel okay" because they were morally in the right. The Mission was made smack in the middle of an American-supported conflict in Nicaragua, and there are plenty of parallels. Yet I don't remember many reviewers making connections between the film and current events. This now seems odd, in that brave priests (and nuns) in Central America became martyrs opposing paramilitary death squads, almost like the characters in The Mission. Meanwhile, so-called radical filmmakers made documentaries and dramas about ugly neo-colonial crimes in Central and South America, more often than not finding their work (and sometimes themselves) marginalized or outlawed.
To cut short this line of thought, The Mission finishes as a handsomely mounted and well intentioned but somewhat "safe" political film. In this sense David Puttnam seems a newer, less grating Stanley Kramer, a producer who tackled big issues in his movies but dodged disturbing content that might contradict the status quo.
Jesuit Priest and anti-war protester Daniel Berrigan appears in a small role, but viewers are more likely to spot star Liam Neeson as a brother Jesuit at Jeremy Irons' mission.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray of The Mission is a beauty easy to appreciate on a large HD monitor or projection system. The lush, dark rain forests are very pleasing to the eye, to say the least, while Ennio Morricone's familiar theme music (repurposed in trailers for years thereafter) enforces the idea that Father Gabriel's missions are a bit of Heaven on Earth.
Roland Joffé provides the commentary, which gives an idea of the complexity of the production. The main extra is an involved BBC Omnibus TV docu on the shoot, which shows the director and crew extending every consideration to their Waunana Indian extras -- it's almost too PC in that respect. The film's trailer is included as well. The Blu-ray is just being made available now, and I'm a bit confused about its actual release date -- which I believe was as an Amazon Exclusive.
David Puttnam had already been knighted in 1983. He became the CEO of Columbia Pictures for two years, but ended up presiding over the studio's sale to the Sony Corporation.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Mission Blu-ray rates:
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T'was Ever Thus.