***½/**** Image A- Sound A- Extras B
starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn
screenplay by Robert Bolt
directed by Roland Joffé
by Jefferson Robbins Career arcs fascinate and depress me. The Mission finds Roland Joffé at his early peak on just his second movie, making what amounts to a $25 million art film starring one of America's best-known actors. Did Joffé change beyond this point, or did he refuse to change while the ecosystem altered around him? A bit of both, I suspect, after Fat Man and Little Boy and The Scarlet Letter. These epics went unembraced, and Oscars or no, the financiers weren't always going to settle for contemplative examinations of people caught in the turning of historical tides. Yet that's where Joffé was at his best--and maybe he couldn't get beyond it. Spalding Gray had him pegged early on: "Leave it to a Brit to tell you your own history," he advised in Swimming to Cambodia. Sure enough, as in The Killing Fields, Joffé's The Mission examines pangs of conscience at a critical moment of political, religious, and cultural upheaval.
In 1750, the shared border of Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay is under dispute by Spanish and Portuguese diplomats. The Jesuit missions, built in the forests by force of will, persuasion, and faith, offer the native Guaraní Indians their only sanctuary from slavers and shifting colonial policies. Peaceful Jesuit Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) establishes a particularly remote mission at San Carlos, high up the sheer Iguazú Falls, only to see his gentle work threatened by the kidnapping mercenary Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). Mendoza's own fatal transgression offers Gabriel a chance to save his soul, and Mendoza's ascent of the falls to help construct a church is, quite literally, heavy with symbolism. But their success among the Indians is short-lived, as political demands lead the church to disavow the jungle missions (an act known historically as the Jesuit Reductions), leaving them to slave-hungry Portuguese control.
Joffé's wide-ranging mind--the one Gray was describing when he said "Roland burns"--is well on display here. An opening vignette with the Guaraní murdering a priest by way of mocking the Crucifixion rings to me of a Jorge Luis Borges story, "The Gospel According to Mark." In subsequent shots, Joffé's references include Jacques-Louis David's "The Death of Marat" as well as Nick Ut's photography from Vietnam. The conflict of the film is that age-old one of suffering fortune's slings and arrows or taking up arms to oppose them. Gabriel is the passive resistor, lending faith to his native flock while soldiers close in; Mendoza casts off his fresh Jesuit robes to reclaim his neglected sword and impart faith of another kind. While either man could be seen as God's instrument in the fray and neither is wholly wrong, De Niro, playing a warmonger finding true love in the embrace of priests he reviled and Indians he dehumanized, has the more interesting character. Irons's Gabriel is morally perfect (and therefore kind of boring), although he plays his unintentional part in the slaughter. As reivers scale the falls to raze her home, a native child tells Gabriel she's afraid to retreat to the jungle because "the Devil lives there." Well, who taught her that, exactly?
Unrecognized for it by the Academy, De Niro gives one of his best dramatic performances--much of it, like the most affecting portions of the film, wordless. The slow burn he does when he learns he's lost his fiancée (Cherie Lunghi, caught in flagrante here much as she is in Excalibur) is darkness made visible. It's acting almost without expression, like telepathy. Midnight Run was only two years away, and it's a wonderful comedy, but it's a short step from there to Analyze This to De Niro making "a De Niro movie." The Mission falls among the actor's last great wrestling matches with demons. Joffé fleshes out the background with able supporting players, among them a largely silent Father Daniel Berrigan, whose own battles in the name of faith and peace make him a real-life melding of Gabriel and Mendoza. Chuck Low is the Spanish don interested in profiting from Indian slavery, and he's got a magnetic mug for playing such a venal asshole, though after GoodFellas I kept waiting for him to whinge about getting his share from the Lufthansa job. A youthful Liam Neeson is Gabriel's idealistic partner in evangelizing to the jungle folk. Finally, the Guaraní are portrayed largely by the Waunana Indians of Colombia, who were living a remote but threatened lifestyle similar to the harried natives of the Jesuit Reductions period when Joffé approached them. All these pieces move in tandem to display the elements of a story. Nothing is over-explained; the course of the narrative is felt rather than described. That would be rare today, and the corporate reflex against such filmmaking may explain why Joffé's name no longer appears in a lot of mainstream credits. It's too bad; I'm sure he could still burn as before, if allowed more oxygen.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Chris Menges's Oscar-winning cinematography gets a reasonable showcase in Warner's 2.40:1, 1080p Blu-ray presentation. His play of shadow and light in interior scenes is the visual aspect I like best, notwithstanding the astonishing shots of the great falls. (A perpetually cloudy region, Iguazú doesn't offer a lot of sunlight to work with.) There's mild edge-enhancement, evident around the tricorner hats of the European dons in the scenes set in Asunción, but it's negligible. For what it's worth, the clarity of BD does some mischief to Joffé's post-production, pre-digital effects when it shows up the rotoscoped bullet wounds on barechested Indians. The 5.1 DTS-HD MA track is generous on atmospherics--and again, the falls is the real movie star in this regard, with different textures of the crashing water distributed to the various channels. Ennio Morricone's score--one of his most culturally adaptive, uniting wood flutes with chamber choirs--likewise blooms to full life. It's annoying that the subtitles don't seem able to keep pace with dialogue this tightly written and thoughtfully deployed: a lot of liberties are taken in redacting the spoken phrases.
"We talk too much in movies," Joffé avers in his feature-length commentary, ported over from The Mission's 2003 DVD release. And then he doesn't pause for breath for the entire 125-minute runtime. Practically never scene-specific and as rewarding as a lively lecture by a skilled dean of the humanities, his talk is circuitous yet not meandering. Humanity is seldom far from his thoughts: the way cultures react, the way men come to friendship, the way conscience bites and drives us, if we're lucky, towards self-betterment. Watching Mendoza's first appearance, a white ghost snatching Guaraní out from under Gabriel's care, Joffé says, "I love this first confrontation here between two men who are both wrong." He's a deft mimic, nailing the voices of compatriots (including legendary screenwriter Robert Bolt), and his tales of transporting the Waunana from their Colombian homeland to the various shooting locales are fascinating. (They trusted Joffé enough to get on a plane for the first time in their tribe's history but said they expected him, in the way of white men, to kill them in some manner eventually.) The yak-track unveils a flaw in the audio when the movie's dialogue and sound come crashing into Joffé's voiceover at about the 68-minute mark, then retreat after a few seconds.
"'Omnibus': The Making of The Mission" (57 mins.) is an episode of the British arts documentary series recounting Joffé's negotiations with the Waunana and other aspects of the production. It's a quiet, thoughtful doc that perfectly complements the film and shames the EPK bullshit that peppers most studio discs today. Asunción Ontiveros, who plays the chief of the Guaraní, speaks eloquently in his real-life role as an international campaigner for South American Indian rights. After two months on set, the Indians begin to feel exploited, and say so, in a labour conflict that forces the producers to talk it out on the natives' terms. Ultimately, everyone walks away satisfied, although it's a little shocking to learn that the Waunana communities as a whole were paid just £90,000 (about $130,500 U.S.), plus a share of the film's proceeds. Joffé cites Werner Herzog's Fitzcarraldo, a diplomatic disaster whose crew was driven out of at least one indigenous area, as his how-not-to guide for working with the Waunana. After a movie that makes one hate humanity all the more, a few tears are wrung from the sight of Liam Neeson cradling a Waunana child in his downtime, and from watching Irons and Joffé engaging in a native circle dance--one stiffly, the other joyfully; guess which one is which--to celebrate the close of filming. Originally published: June 13, 2011.
125 minutes; R; 2.40:1 (1080p, VC-1); English 5.1 DTS-HD MA, French DD 2.0 (Stereo); English SDH, French, Spanish subtitles; BD-50; Region-free; Warner