The Mission

by criticalhit009

Part of a series on the films of Jeremy Irons

The Mission (1986) was a project well suited to Jeremy Irons’ preference towards prestige pictures. Headed by a near all star cast (Jeremy Irons, Robert DeNiro, babyfaced Liam Neeson) and crew (score by Ennio Morricone, directed by Roland Joffé), the film won both the Palme d’Or and the Technical Grand Prize at the Cannes Film Festival. Unfortunately, the film’s quality is only surface deep.

Where to begin dissecting this film? Perhaps we shall start with the plot, or rather, the lack of one. This film is a historical adaptation of real events in 18th century South America, as Jesuits try to establish missions and convert natives while brushing up against colonialist slave trading. Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a Jesuit who establishes contact with the native Guaraní group. He does this with music, or course, which begins the films didactic footnote that “music is a universal language.” Such didacticism never leaves, as Morricone’s score takes up Gabriel’s melody and disperses it throughout the film.

While Gabriel gains success in influencing the native people, Rodrigo Mendoza, a slave trader, comes into the picture. Here we have an interesting dynamic, a shepard versus a wolf fighting over the potential flock. But the film loses that tension when Mendoza commits to being a Jesuit after serving penance for killing his brother in a fit of rage. From here follows the political tensions of the the mission in regards to the Portuguese, who want the land for themselves. The middle of the film has prolonged scenes on the humanity of the Guaraní, showing off the missions to illustrate their beauty to a visiting Cardinal advising the use of the land. He reluctantly, but ultimately asserts that the Jesuits must leave the land due to pressures to keep the Jesuit order intact. Our stars all stay on the mission for various reason, Gabriel as a man of peace, Mendoza as a man of war, with the young Jesuit Fielding (Neeson) by his side. Both sides fail, and the mission is destroyed by the invading forces.

The narrative of the film, or rather, the lack of one, is what harms the film the most. The narrative threads are never clear in the film, and the battle at the end of the film seems to come out of nowhere, distinctly different from the rest of the film’s idleness.  Our characters are underdeveloped, simplistic symbols that don’t amount to symbolizing much in the end. Historically speaking, none of the Jesuits disobeyed or stayed with the Guaraní to fight. But that doesn’t stop the film from having didactic, yet vaporous themes of peace vs. war. Father Gabriel questions whether “might is right”, which is not only a cliché, but also a cliché that did not exist in the 18th century. Talk of peace and war, obedience and noncompliance, and other binaries are vaguely alluded to, but never fully realized, leaving it up to the scenery to buoy the film’s mess of of a plot with its cinematography.

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The poster captures the beauty and terror of nature (how Herzogian), but makes the film appear to be much more symbolically solid than what it actually is.

While the film’s only Oscar went to cinematography, the cinematography isn’t that impressive. While the natural landscapes are gorgeous and are what made the film win the oscar, long tracking shots feel somewhat staged, with the battle scene at the end dipping in and out of coherency. There is nothing original or stunning in the film’s cinematography, aside from the beauty and terror of the natural landscapes themselves. The obvious comparison here is towards Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo, a film that also uses the labour of native peoples, and has a story of white men trying to tame the jungle. This isn’t to say one shouldn’t watch The Mission because it isn’t as good as Fitzcarraldo (a film should always be judged on its own merits), but because The Mission itself is a failure of a film, a pretentious prestige piece that duped enough people to win some awards, only to fade into obscurity. The film has the gall to being and end with 4th wall breaking looks on from the Cardinal, as if to say “Be affected by this film! Note our profundity and walk away changed!” But of course, the film fails to rally any sort of meaningful message whatsoever.

The director Roland Joffé made his earlier by directing another historical adaptation, The Killing Fields (1984), which also netted a few oscars. His oeuvre is full of prestige trash, historical adaptations that stretch the truth for oscar gold. He also directed and produced the abysmal Scarlet Letter (1995) adaptation, and that film ends with a battle scene as well. The Mission, generally speaking, has not held up well over time, save for the fact that it plays nearly every year at my alma mater Calvin College. Why is this film so popular among the Christian crowds? Obviously the plot of conversion to Christianity is alluring, but more so is the film’s depiction of idyllic missions throughout the film. Much of the film is illustrating their harmony and beauty, idealistic imagery that is so potent to Christians.

I’ve talked much about the film, but not about the lead performances. That is because there is very little to say, except that Irons and DeNiro don’t get much to say. Their acting is broad and bland, a result of an unfocused, overwrought script and ineffective directing. This is a particular shame, because I watched this film specifically to examine Irons’ performance, but his presence feels marginal, even when he is a main character. He all but disappears but he end of the film as the poorly shot battle sequence goes underway. In that regard, it’s not even worth watching for Jeremy Irons.

The Mission is a frustrating disappointment, a prestige picture at its worst. As Roger Ebert eloquently stated when listing the nominees for Best Picture that year at the Oscars, there were “Four good nominees, and… The Mission.”

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