Sunday, November 21, 2010

1986 - The Mission

As promised, the poll for the next year of review is now running (in the right sidebar). You may notice that the list of years available in the poll does not include films from the 1930s as I mentioned in my last post. Here's my excuse... Kat and I will be heading home to Sydney over the Christmas/New Year period and then, on the way back to New York, I'll be stopping in L.A. for about a week. This seems like the perfect opportunity to check in at the UCLA Film Archive for a viewing of one or two of those hard-to-find Best Picture nominees. Since all those rarities are from the 1930s, I figured it best to spend time with another decade for now and leave the 1930s for January.

Meanwhile, we continue with 1986's contest by taking a look at the following Best Picture nominee...

The Mission
Roland Joffé
Robert Bolt
Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson
Academy Awards:
7 nominations
1 win, for Best Cinematography

In 18th century South America, well-meaning Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Irons) sets up a mission in an area of the jungle accessed only by a precarious waterfall climb. He introduces Christianity to the indigenous Guarani tribe with the help of his fellow priests. The newest recruit to the Jesuit order is Rodrigo (De Niro), a former mercenary and slave-trader with a violent streak, who joined the priesthood as penance after a bout of fratricide.

Everything is hunky-dory for a while until politics gets in the way. The Spanish and Portuguese governments have decided to play around with which parts of the continent they claim as their own and the mission, previously in Spanish territory, is now considered Portuguese. Since Portuguese law is sympathetic to slavery, this is bad news for the Guarani. Enter Cardinal Altamirano (McAnally), a Papal emissary assigned the task of determining whether the Vatican will protect the mission or deliver it to the Portuguese.

My first thought after watching The Mission is how incredibly gruelling the shoot must have been for all involved. Shot on location in and around the rivers, waterfalls and jungles of South America, the natural beauty on display is hard to miss, but nature is not always convenient for film-makers. Nonetheless, convenient or not, the result is a feeling of true immersion in the jungle environment. No wonder the film's only Oscar came for Cinematography.

I am somewhat torn, however, in regard to the film's score. Composed by the legendary Ennio Morricone, The Mission's score includes some genuinely beautiful and moving music, but despite the score's justified long-term critical recognition, some of the tracks seem oddly inappropriate, particularly the thriller-like themes in the film's first act. While these are evocative tunes in their own right, their placement within the film results perhaps in the wrong emotion being evoked. The scenes they underscore are so intensely dramatic as written that the addition of such overtly suspenseful music is overkill, almost cartoonish. Luckily, the tender brilliance of the other more inspirational themes is what is remembered.

The Academy didn't see fit to nominate any of the cast despite some magnificent performances. Jeremy Irons portrays the calm Father Gabriel with strength and passion. Robert De Niro (pictured) is likewise powerful as the volatile Rodrigo, arguably the most physically taxing role in the film. He spends several scenes hiking up muddy inclines attached to an enormous bundle of metal. The cast weren't entirely without accolades, though. Ray McAnally nabbed BAFTA's Best Supporting Actor award for his nuanced turn as the conflicted Altamirano.


  1. The soundtrack to this film is one of my all time favourites... it's absolutely beautiful! Would love to re-watch the film now to see if I agree with you about the score not matching the visuals. I read somewhere that a good film score is one that you don't even notice because it is all a part of the story telling... thoughts?! :)

  2. Yeah, I would pretty much agree with that, for the most part. The score should be able to blend in. However, I still think it's possible to have a noticeable (and indeed memorable) score that still remains a part of the story telling. (Think Jaws, for example.)

    And those suspense/thriller bits in The Mission just took me out of the story a bit. It's only the stuff near the beginning, though. The other parts are genuinely beautiful. Which probably explains why those parts are the ones people remember (and EVERYONE seems to love this score). Perhaps they have just forgotten the melodramatic parts...

  3. The Mission is certainly a showcase for its technical accomplishments. With its natural beauty, it is no surprise that the cinematography was magnificent. I don't think Ennio Morricone has a rival when it comes to writing melodic theme pieces, and The Mission's main theme is one of his most beautiful. With over 400 scores to his credit, it is a shame his only Academy Award is an honorary one. I think he deserved one or more competitive Oscars; and for the record, my favorite of his was the haunting Once Upon a Time in America score.

    Dramatically, The Mission was on the ponderous side to me. There was a sense of inevitability that the film trudged towards. The screenplay wasn't up to Robert Bolt's previous accomplishments. I also don't think any performance was particularly award worthy. Jeremy Irons, who had the most screen time seemed to spend much of it walking in the rain. I also must say that the decision of both Robert De Niro as Mendosa and Chuck Low as Spanish leader Cabeza not to attempt any type of Hispanic accent was a mistake. De Niro was a particular disappointment. He was simply miscast.

    The final massacre was chaotic and oddly edited. The fact that Medoza's ragtag group of fighters were rather easily overrun was actually a realisticly shot sequence. Father Gabriel's marching the children to their death's was on the other hand, hard to fathom.