Classic Review – The Mission (1986)

The Mission Jeremy Irons

Jeremy Irons in The Mission

The Mission

Directed By Roland Joffé

Starring Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson

Review by Jordan

Please note that the following review contains details of the film’s plot

The Mission is a rare adventure film that feels truly authentic in its time and place. Enormous in scope and intent on portraying historical facts over sensationalism or emotional manipulation, the film, directed by Roland Joffé and featuring a moving score from the renowned Ennio Morricone, uses its stunning and dangerous South American landscapes not as an excuse to revel in cinematography glory, but to surround the telling of an important story of three men whose internal struggles culminate in an irreversible conflict.

An unconscious Jesuit Priest is tied to a wooden cross and thrown by the South American Guaraní tribe into a river, picking up momentum and tossed about by the protruding rocks as he begins to regain his senses. Creating a striking image, his body then falls down the face of the imposing Iguazu Falls, lost in the whitewash as nature continues on in its harsh ways. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), battles the gruelling conditions and travels to this remote tribe to continue the work of establishing a Mission, fostering a connection with the land’s inhabitants and succeeding in building trust and imparting religion.

There he encounters notorious slave trader Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), who, after capturing a dozen or so youth and returning to the Spanish settlement, discovers his wife is in love with his half-brother, whom he rashly kills in a duel. Burdened with guilt and self-loathing, and thought lost to the world despite his acquittal, Mendoza is approached by Gabriel, who offers him a penance for his sins in the form of accompanying him and the other Jesuits back to the top of the waterfall. He follows; with cumbersome armour and weaponry in hand. Upon arriving, the former mercenary is forgiven by the Guaraní in a symbolic gesture, and overcome with gratitude and in search of purpose he chooses to stay and become a member of the Order.

This mission, though, is threatened when Spain sign the Treaty of Madrid, which seeds more land to the Portuguese who freely allow slavery. Papal emissary Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), torn between protecting the missions of the Jesuits of which he was once a member and maintaining useful relations with Portugal and thus keeping strong the power of the Catholic church in Europe, visits these missions to decide if any should remain. Each possible decision is accompanied by dire consequence.

The motivations of Gabriel, Mendoza and Cardinal Altamirano clearly stem from a place of earnestness, but their ultimate actions are those of men whose moralistic decisions are formed through rationalization and inbred stubbornness, with each reverting to their most comfortable ways and accepting the outcomes that come from that. Integral to the success of the film then are the performances of these lead actors, and while they fail to rank among the finest from each, its pleasing that they’re full of restraint, which is so necessary when presenting people exhausted physically and even more so mentally and who have unwittingly trained themselves to never show emotional investment. De Niro, renowned for his ability to play unhinged, is softly spoken but never boring, and the steely face of Irons which only breaks when his allegiances are questioned remains throughout the anchor in a vast production.

The Mission won the coveted Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival 1986, and was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, for which it was truly deserving (ultimately it won just the one for Chris Menges’ cinematography). Time too has since been kind to Joffé’s epic vision. The scale of movies is always increasing to fill every inch of the cinema screen, but in contradiction to this a willingness to take risks in fear of losing audience favour appears steadily on the decline: cue a film full of risky decisions, both on and off the screen.

4.5 Oboes out of 5

The Mission Poster

5 responses to “Classic Review – The Mission (1986)

  1. This movie could have been so cliche ridden with the Westerners learning how to be human from the natives but it is more subtle than that. It’s like they are all learning the same lessons together and it is just more shocking to the Jesuits. And the music…probably my favorite score of all time. Gabriel’s Oboe I have just put on repeat and listened too over and over again. It is astonishing.

    • Great thoughts. I’m glad it never conforms to an expected pace or direction, and instead transports the viewer using delightful visuals and music. The final act though is heartbreaking.

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