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USA 1986
Directed by
Roland Joffe
124 minutes
Rated PG

Reviewed by
Bernard Hemingway
3.5 stars

The Mission

Roland Joffé's Palme D'Or-winning follow-up to his 1984 Oscar-winning directorial debut, The Killing Fields, similarly takes on the subject of Man’s inhumanity to Man, this time that of the Catholic Church in collusion with the Spanish and Portugese monarchies during the 18th century towards the native inhabitants of the north-western rainforests of South American. It is a powerful indictment of the march of “civilization” (it is based on historical fact, the Guarani people who are its focus are virtually extinct today) although the hieratic tone of the film, embodied by Jeremy Irons’ performance, gives an unavoidable sense of distance to the events. In this respect the climactic confrontation between the Spaniards and the Indians is a bit of a let-down.

Irons plays Jesuit missionary, Father Gabriel, whose mission high in the jungle is in conflict with slave-trading mercenary, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). When in a fit of jealous rage Rodrigo kills his own brother he realizes the error of his ways and eventually joins Fr Gabriel and becomes a Jesuit himself. All is fine until the Catholic Church finds itself forced for reasons of political expediency to close the Jesuit missions which have protected the Guarani from Portugese slave-traders. Both Fr Gabriel and Rodgrigo refuse to abandon their charges but the only latter is willing to kill to protect them.  

Joffé keeps the scale of his story large but not quite epic, above all concentrating on the awesomeness of the Amazon jungle (superbly photographed by Chris Menges), the innocence of the natives as the ineluctable forces of history close in on them. This is depressing stuff as there are no comforting David and Goliath heroics here, just the triumph of brutal self-interest. Commendable as this candour is, the film suffers from a lack of personality on the parts of the two leads. Irons borders on the irritating with his sanctimoniously selfless holiness and the exemplary New Yorker, De Niro is mis-cast as a Spanish mercenary (surprisingly and mercifully there is no romance between him and a Guarini woman)  Had Joffé and screenwriter Robert Bolt got this aspect right, individualized the characters more and given their relationship more dynamism the film could have been a much stronger drama. As it is, The Mission is a profoundly sad story whose telling impresses for its high level of craftsmanship.

DVD Extras: Umbrella Entertainment’s 2 Disc release includes a Director’s Commentary, a BBC documentary on the Waunana Indians and the theatrical trailer. 

Available from: Umbrella Entertainment




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