Movies We Like
It's fair to say that The Mission is an underrated film. Unlike Raging Bull or Blue Velvet it does not appear on many lists of the best films of the '80s (though any such list that does not have the Russian war flick Come And See on it is completely invalid anyway). The Mission doesn't even get mentioned in most Robert De Niro retrospectives. But this physically demanding, yet subtle role is one of De Niro's best. This was back when De Niro was still "Robert De Niro - all time great actor." Back in the good old days when he was still trying, before he became "That hammy actor from Meet The Parents and other comedies." The Mission was derided by most critics when it was released as overblown, as was De Niro’s performance (though the film did score a bunch of Oscar nominations thanks to a pricey ad campaign). But The Mission may actually be a lost gem that needs to be rediscovered and reevaluated; perhaps it could use the three-disc Criterion treatment.
Written by Robert Bolt (Lawrence Of Arabia), The Mission, at first glance, seems like a sweeping saga, but on closer inspection, it’s a small story with large mountains behind it. Jeremy Irons plays Gabriel, a Spanish Jesuit priest building a mission in the rain forest of South America in the 18th century. He is able to win over the natives with his groovy oboe playing. The natives become fully invested in the creation and running of the mission - it’s like a small co-op of social peace - as the natives are converted to Christians. Until a menacing slave trader, Mendoza (De Niro), arrives, ensnaring natives and selling them on the open market. Mendoza is a man with no moral center. However, later when he kills his brother (Aidan Quinn, sporting very '80s hair) in a jealous quarrel, Mendoza finds God and serves his penance by joining Gabriel’s order and hauling all his armor and weapons through the mountains. Moved by the native people's acceptance of him, he becomes a fierce protector of the mission and its people.
With a political battle for South America raging in Europe, the Portuguese argue to enslave the natives and the Jesuits must defend the missions to their bosses in Rome. Gabriel takes Cardinal Altamirano (a complex performance from Ray McAnally of My Left Foot) on a tour of the mission. Though he is visibly impressed with the beauty and the work being done, he tells Gabriel it’s out of his hands and they must vacate. This leads to a battle between the Jesuits and natives against the soldiers and slavers. Gabriel fights with the cross and pacifism, leading to a quick martyr death. De Niro’s character is able to pull out his old swords and guns and do what he does best - kill.
British director Roland Joffe was hot off the critical success off his previous film, The Killing Fields, giving him the financial freedom to go "epic." The Mission would be the last good film he would direct; the rest of his work would range from merely forgettable (Fat Man And Little Boy) to bad (The Scarlet Letter with Demi Moore and Gary Oldman). With The Mission the guy clearly had a lot of vision and ambition, shooting in some dense and remote locations. Joffe entered Herzog territory (Aguirre, The Wrath Of God), leading a cast and crew to the middle of nowhere and taking full advantage of the beauty around him.
After gaining great acclaim with the British television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited, Jeremy Irons was still finding himself as a movie star. Gabriel is a potentially one-note role - peacefully heroic - but Irons was able to give him some new colors that may not have shown up on the page. Irons would peak a few years later with his devilish performances in Dead Ringers and Reversal Of Fortune, winning a well-deserved Oscar for the latter. Still sporting his Angel Heart beard and long hair, De Niro was finishing up his peak years. For him The Mission followed The King Of Comedy, Once Upon A Time In America, and his Brazil cameo. He still had a couple of memorable performances to come with his Al Capone in The Untouchables, Midnight Run, and finally Goodfellas before the myth of Robert De Niro would be over and he would become just another hit & miss actor.
The true star of The Mission - besides Chris Menges' sumptuous cinematography (also more or less a peak, in terms of scope for his career) - is the stunning score by Ennio Morricone. If De Niro was a myth, Morricone is a god. With hundreds of scores to his credit, many considered masterpieces, The Mission may be the best and most haunting for the Italian maestro. He become famous for his creative Spaghetti Western scores collaborating with director Sergio Leone, using whips and guns in the music. Morricone’s score for The Mission is equally clever, employing many rare and lost South American instruments, as well as a huge choir singing "Ava Maria" in the Guarani language.
The Mission may not be on your list of best films of the 1980s (or mine) or even be your favorite film of ’86 (nope, that would be Hannah And Her Sisters), but it is still a film that deserves more respect than it has gotten. It’s big, it’s smart, it’s challenging - all traits we don’t get much of, even in films for grown-ups, these days. If nothing else, at the least, think of The Mission as a beautifully shot music video for Ennio Morricone’s perfect soundtrack. And that’s one hell of a music video.
The Mission won an Oscar for Best Cinematography. It was nominated for another six Oscars: Best Director, Best Art Direction, Best Costume Design, Best Editing, Best Score, and Best Picture.