Imagine a time when two empires could split the world in two, one half for each country to rule, as if the globe were an orange. This in fact happened in 1494, with the Treaty of Tordesillas, mediated by the Vatican, in which Portugal and Spain, then world empires, agreed to split the newly discovered territories outside Europe along a line of longitude. This treaty gave Spain control of most of South America, with the exception of Brazil, which Portugal kept. Then in the 1750 Treaty of Madrid, Spain agreed to give Portugal the territories west of Brazil, encompassing what is today the country’s territory. With two world empires deciding the fate of colonies as if they were lifeless pieces on a chessboard, it’s no surprise that a lot of people ended up suffering the consequences. The Mission is the movie about those people.
The movie follows the lives of three people: Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), a Jesuit missionary who goes to live with the Guaraní tribes in the Amazonian jungles to convert them to Christianity but defends their right to self-rule; Rodrigo Mendonza (Robert DeNiro), a slave trader in search of redemption for the murder of his brother; and Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a Vatican envoy. He comes when Father Gabriel asks the Vatican to protect the Spanish missions established in the territories. These missions have prospered and are examples of Christian communities. Transferring them to Portuguese territories would destroy them, since under Portuguese law slavery was allowed and the Guaraní would serve as a cheap labour force. Altamirano, although humbled and marvelled by the achievements of the converted Guaraní, who have constructed churches capable of competing with their European cousins, is forced by duty to decide in favour of the Portuguese, in the name of the good relationships between the Vatican and the European powers. The film concludes with a dramatisation of the Guaraní War, in which the tribes resisted the invaders until joint Spanish-Portuguese forces crushed them in a bloody massacre.
If for nothing else, I love this for having given Ennio Morricone the opportunity to compose the most beautiful film score in the history of cinema. Is it strange to admit I only saw this movie because of the score? The truth is, many movies I only watch to listen to their scores. As an avid film score collector, I listen to most scores well in advance of watching the movies. Every once in a while I listen to one that makes me think, “Well, this is really great! Let’s see how it works in context. Maybe the movie didn’t butcher it too much.” Well, the movie didn’t butcher this one. Maybe the score is just too magnificent for that. In any case, the moment the first notes of “Falls” are heard, in tandem with the crushing sound of an Amazonian waterfall, it becomes obvious Roland Joffé understood how to put the score at the service of the story.
This interest in the music isn’t redundant. The Mission is a movie driven by sounds, music and images. It’s not a traditional movie driven by plot or even characters, although I find the trio well developed, especially where their moral consciousnesses are concerned. Robert Bolt, the two-time Oscar-winning screenwriter of Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago and A Man for all Seasons, wrote the screenplay, his final one. Bolt, a renowned playwright in his own right, at the age of 61, was still experimenting with his style. Sergio Leone-like minimalist dialogues is not something one associates with the poetic, fast-paced witty dialogues of “Lawrence” and “Seasons,” but Bolt managed to write a very visual screenplay, very different from his previous masterpieces, where actions define characters more than witty words.
Consider for instance the character of Rodrigo Mendoza. Catching his brother with his wife, he kills him in a fit of rage. Then he delivers himself to the authorities. When Father Gabriel meets him in prison, he’s a dejected, broken human being. Gabriel offers him the possibility of atonement, to work with him in the missions, where he can help those he once exploited. How does Rodrigo show his penance? Well, the easy way out would be for a tear-jerking speech full of wise, clichéd truths (and if someone could pull that off, that person would be Bolt). In the movie, however, Rodrigo travels with Gabriel back to the mission. It’s a journey that takes weeks, through thick jungles, mountainous terrain, and up waterfalls. Rodrigo has tied around his waist a net containing his heavy armour, symbol of his former live. It’s the burden he carries. It delays everyone, but he stubbornly pushes it after him. It falls, he goes back for it. And when he arrives, at the end of this unforgettable sequence, at the mission, an Indian cuts off the rope and throws it into a river. Then Rodrigo breaks down crying in a mixture of sadness, relief and joy his new life beginning.
Wordless sequences such as this wouldn’t be half as powerful, however, without seasoned director of photography Chris Menges helming the camera. For his work on the movie, he won an Oscar. He had previously won one for The Killing Fields.
Back in the ‘80s, The Mission was part of a short-termed interest in South America: the interference of the US government in the continent, reflected on its open support for dictatorships, was becoming more and more evident. However, whereas most movies, like Salvador and Under Fire, dealt with contemporary events, few tried to show the origins of these conflicts in their historical context as the results of centuries of European colonialism. Only The Mission and Alex Cox’s Walker took a different path, exploring the past to better explain what was going on in the present. As such, the movie is not just a fine period drama but a sensitive history lesson too.
Roland Joffé disappeared from the map after his crowning achievement. Well, he continued to be around, to work with famous actors, but he never made anything as interesting again. It’s a pity that he burned himself out in less than four years. His first two movies augured an amazing career. Instead he disappeared faster than Francis Ford Coppola. I think one of the reasons this movie came out so well is because Joffé had a good team working with him. He had achieved excellent results with Menges and editor Jim Clarke before and you can see that this is one of those movies where passion and talent overflow from every frame, where everyone contributed all they had to movie. Directors sometimes take the auteur theory too seriously and forget the collaborative aspect of filmmaking. Still, everything that makes cinema great is found in his two masterpieces, The Killing Fields and The Mission.
Director: Roland Joffé
Screenwriter: Robert Bolt
Cast: Robert DeNiro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Liam Neeson, Aidan Quinn
Runtime: 125 min