Film Review: The Mission (1986)

In attempting to sum up a film like 1986’s religious epic The Mission, one word comes to mind: schism. Beautiful and ugly, complex and glaringly simplistic, The Mission is a big, powerful and, at times, amazing film. It is also, however, a film at war with itself, never gelling into a fully-realized masterwork.

Perhaps it’s best to start by discussing what the film has going for it. The backdrop of The Mission is one the most beautiful locations on Earth: Iguazu Falls, a massive system of waterfalls found near the shared border of Argentina and Brazil. It also plunges viewers into a particularly fascinating moment in history. Set in the 1750s, The Mission follows a small group of Spanish Jesuits who attempt to convert a Guarani tribe to Christianity and build a mission in the jungle above the falls. Meanwhile, other European interests are encroaching upon the region. These are personified by various mercenaries who make their living by capturing the Guarani and selling them to nearby plantations as slave labor.

These worlds collide when Father Gabriel (played by Jeremy Irons), the leader of the Jesuit group, reaches out to a particularly brutal mercenary named Rodrigo Mendoza, played by Robert De Niro. Mendoza is in the midst of a spiritual crisis, having fallen into a depression after jealously killing his half-brother over a woman. Gabriel prompts Mendoza to perform penance for his actions, which involves him literally climbing Iguazu Falls with the tools of his trade (a suit of armor and a rapier) strapped to his back. This epic task acts as a catalyst for Mendoza’s redemption, particularly when the Guarani encounter and forgive him when he reaches the summit of the falls. He then joins Father Gabriel at his mission, becomes a Jesuit and deeply involves himself in the Guarani community, which he once terrorized and oppressed.

The Mission is directed by Roland Joffé and was nominated for seven Academy Awards at the time of its release. The initial scenes are an indicator of why it garnered such a reception, displaying a mastery over cinematography, costume design, editing and score. Joffé and Co. create a breathtaking sense of place. They also clearly show how that place has become ground zero for a bruising struggle between economics and religion.

The smaller-scale character work, at least in the film’s first half, is similarly impressive. Robert De Niro’s Rodrigo Mendoza goes through a profound journey over this section, morphing from a bloodthirsty thug to an aspiring peacenik. The Mission asks a lot from its audience regarding this change and the character in general, particularly its rapid nature and the obvious question about if De Niro is the best choice to play a 1750’s Spanish man. Due to these challenges, it is impressive that Mendoza’s shift (which really does dominate the film’s first half) feels as credible as it does. This is likely due to the strength of Robert Bolt’s screenplay but also to De Niro himself. Although the actor does nothing to modify his New Yorker accent and contemporary vibe, coming across occasionally like Jake La Motta in South America, his work in the film is strong. This is obviously a film that belongs in the “committed” era of De Niro’s filmography, you know, the pre-Tribeca De Niro, when he still gave a shit.

The Mission begins to lose its character-driven focus in its later half; although, arguably, its narrative becomes more energetic. This shift occurs once a fragile peace treaty (the real life Treaty of Madrid) cedes much of Spain’s South American empire (which did not allow slavery and thus protected the missions and the Guarani) to the Portuguese, which utilize slaves on their plantations. This brings Gabriel and Mendoza into conflict with Portuguese Governor Don Hontar (Ronald Pickup), a loathsome, racist SOB who demands that the Guarani’s lands be forfeited and their people enslaved.

Within this conflict the dichotomies of The Mission begin to reveal themselves. Joffé, Bolt and the other filmmakers deserve credit for making palatable the nebulous political and cultural contexts behind the film’s events. The film successfully connects the Age of Imperialism and growing European hostility towards religion (which would explode during the 1790s through the French Revolution) to the plight of Guarani. This creates a dramatization of history that feels sufficiently complex and multifaceted. However, despite early promising character work, the film’s various players remain static and one dimensional, even while the story’s events become more obviously deep and dramatic.

The worst of these is Pickup’s Governor, who spits enough racist venom to make people like Donald Trump and Nigel Farage look like bleeding heart proponents of cultural pluralism. Irons’ Gabriel is not much better. The Jesuit’s unwavering pacifism gradually goes from being dignified and admirable to quite grating, especially as the Portuguese reclaim control over the jungles where the missions are located and prepare to use force to subjugate the Guarani.

This development initiates the film’s climax: a pitched skirmish above Iguazu. This is spectacularly staged by the filmmakers, but there is never a sense that the emotional stakes are very high. For instance, Gabriel and Mendoza, who by this time have formed a tentative friendship, find themselves divided over the proper response to the Portuguese threat. Ever the soldier, Mendoza almost immediately falls back into his bellicose ways, while Gabriel advocates for some form of non-violent resistance. The film largely avoids investigating either of these divergent opinions, which robs either man of having a fully-developed story and leaves audiences with little more than the notion that people are rigid buffoons, incapable of change.

There are some bright spots in all of this, such as Ray McAnally’s Cardinal Altamirano, whose character is the one actually tasked with deciding the fate of the missions. He is one of the only figures in the film who appears to grapple with the moral implications of European involvement in South America. Thankfully, this extends even to the morality of the Jesuit’s religious activities, a question seemingly lost on characters like Irons’ Gabriel.

The other example of a more complex character is Father Fielding, played by a young buck named Liam Neeson. Unlike his fellow priests, Neeson’s character does not remain mired in some sort of intransigent, ideological position, instead showcasing a much fuller, contradictory personality. Despite his involvement in a religious order, he is also willing to take up arms when necessary. This exciting character offers more possibilities than leading figures like Mendoza and Gabriel, but unfortunately Joffé and Bolt choose not to invest in him, leaving him as little more than a nearly-mute, priestly beefcake.

What is remarkable about this is that Joffé’s film is one marked by interesting contradictions. Although set in a ethereally beautiful location, the film chronicles deeply ugly subject matter, highlighting how human avarice often brings about great misery. This juxtaposition is undeniably powerful, as is the way The Mission tackles the clash of metaphysical and tangible desires. It’s just disappointing that, at least with its major characters, The Mission ignores the schism perhaps most critical to great storytelling: the complex, contradictory nature of the human mind and heart.

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