Tuesday, November 25, 2014

The Mission (1986) - They Who Live

In the first few scenes of The Mission, we are introduced to an Amazonian paradise, a lush expanse of leaf and stone and river. Waterfalls, massive sheets of white foam, cascade into gaping chasms. 

It holds all the power and mystery and beauty of Eden.

And there, amidst it all, is martyrdom and blood, as a man strapped to a cross floats down the river to this death.

Robert Bolt, the screenwriter, had a fascination with identity. His protagonists often exist in a crisis zone where the basic texture of their lives comes under extreme strain. This happens in both Lawrence of Arabia and A Man for All Seasons, as it does in The Mission. 

But instead of a single leading role, the story is balanced between Cardinal Altamirano (Ray MacAnally), Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), and Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). While all three are interesting, this splintering of interest contributes to a lack of focus in the narrative, and produces three distinct acts.

The first act begins with Father Gabriel befriending the Guaraní Indians, but it's Mendoza, the hard-hearted Spanish slave-trader, who quickly becomes the central character. After killing his brother in a duel, Mendoza is taken in by Gabriel, who challenges him to make penance for his actions. All of this culminates in a simply extraordinary scene in the Guaraní village.

The second act ventures into politics, as the Jesuits fight Portuguese officials who wish to enslave their congregation. Cardinal Altamirano is now the focus, and it is his decision that will determine the mission's fate. After the fierce human drama of act one, this feels a bit anticlimactic, but it does a good job of slowly building to act three, when tensions between the Portuguese imperialists and the Jesuit mission erupt, and internal tensions between Mendoza and Gabriel come to the fore.

Throughout the story, all the characters have dealt with a conflict between obedience and rebellion. The church as an institution is corrupt and denies its own principles. The Jesuits have sworn a vow of obedience to their superior, the pacifist Gabriel. This ultimately results in a final debate regarding Christianity and war. Does might make right? Can love conquer all?

Bolt is obviously trying to frame another great clash of ideas, but it doesn't really work. For one thing, it takes too long for the real questions to come up, when they do, they are merely asked and not answered. And, though unsurprising, given the fact that he was an atheist, Bolt just doesn't completely understand Christianity's take on war. He sympathizes with pacifism, but he doesn't back this up with theology, and on the other side of the question, he doesn't even mention just war theory. And the decision to let that argument take place between the Spaniards but not the Guaraní is a major flaw.

In truth, these natives do not exhibit any of the hallmarks of a Christian community. Beyond a decision to cease homicidal attacks on priests, they're little different than before Gabriel came. It isn't helped by the fact that none of the Guaraní are given significant character development, and for the most part, remain firmly in the Noble Savage stereotype. Gabriel spends part of the story trying to convince outsiders that the Guaranís are three-dimensional human beings, but his argument would have been more convincing if it had been true.

However, despite these flaws, when it comes to talent The Mission is an embarrassment of riches. Irons' quiet, thread-bare nobility is perfect for the mild-mannered Father Gabriel. A young Liam Neeson is strong as Gabriel's colleague, Fielding. The rest of the cast do well in fairly straightforward period stock parts.

De Niro's American accent is an odd choice (but he really can't do an English accent), and his acting is a little underwhelming at times. It's an atypical part for him. He's still good, and I suspect he would have done very well if given time to develop a leading role.

But the star role goes to Ennio Morricone. His score is characterized by transcendent chorals threaded through with the lovely woodwind solo Gabriel's Oboe, and forms an aural backdrop which, coupled with exquisite cinematography, gives the whole story a splendor and a pathos rarely matched in cinema. It perfectly complements the tragic and redemptive aspects of the story, and gives depth to its spiritual themes. I compared the Guaraní's home to Eden earlier, and the concept is certainly there intentionally, as this communalist utopia comes under attack and parallels the Fall.

The Mission has its problems, but I still love it. It never fails to move me in its - admittedly flawed - grasping for spirituality. Grace isn't entirely comprehended, but (as it has a tendency to do) it breaks into the story all the same.

4.5/5 stars

Hannah Long

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