The opening scene of THE MISSION is one of those moments that are often described as ‘iconic’, like “you talkin’ to me” or Marilyn’s frock blowing up. It features a priest strapped to a cross floating through white water rapids. The waters become more intense as eventually the priest ‘tombstones’ over the impressive Iguazu Falls. The Christian image of crucifixion is dwarfed by the mighty torrent of natural forces. Its an image that sets up the thematic concerns of the film perfectly and is so enduring that it was recently used by Steve Bell to illustrate David Cameron’s speech to the Conservative party conference.
In 1750, Jesuit priests brought God and culture to the native tribes living in the jungles beyond the rapids in South America. THE MISSION was a collaboration between producer David Putnam and director Roland Joffé who were riding on the success of THE KILLING FIELDS (1984). They were intrigued by a story about the clash between religion and politics, so commissioned playwright Robert Bolt to write a screenplay. Despite its huge budget (for a British film) and its critical acclaim (it was nominated for a number of Oscars, winning one for its eye-catching cinematography) it has sat unwatched on my shelf for years. It was bundled in a De Niro collected box set, yet I never even broke its seal. I diligently watched all the other films in the collection, but skipped this one due to my deeply ingrained antipathy towards Jeremy Irons. I know, I know, I’m missing out on a number of classics due to this irrational aversion. I have no particular problem with Irons (that’s how irrational feelings work) but there is something about his acting style that really irritates me. Its not acting, its talking; talking with an overly pronounced diction, like the Pet Shop Boys without the wit.
He’s well cast here as the Jesuit priest who climbs the falls and charms the native Paraguayan Indians by playing his oboe. In no time he has them singing a requiem and has convinced them of the economic benefits of a cooperative economy: a bit like John Lewis but with sacred hearts.
Iron’s lisping, effete priest is an effective counterpoint to De Niro’s Rodrigo Mendoza. He is a war-like man of action who is capturing the native tribes people to sell as slaves to the Spanish Governor Cubeza. De Niro brings a brooding intensity to the role. Behind his dark eyes and impassive beard there is a smouldering capacity for violence. His wrath is unleashed when he finds his brother in bed with his lover. During a duel he kills him.
Irons meets De Niro in a cell and offers him redemption by joining the mission. The fratricide is legal, as it was committed during a duel, but he is wracked by guilt. De Niro is effective at demonstrating Rodrigo’s mercurial pride – he was driven to kill his brother due to the apparent mocking of the people in the streets – Iron’s mission is to help De Niro to find his humility. Despite the two actors best attempts, there’s no real depth to the two roles – Irons and De Niro are a Yin and Yang, Peace and Wrath. They are symbols. There follows a prolonged scene as Rodrigo climbs the muddy, drenched rocks, dragging his heavy bundle of armour and weapons behind him, only to see them drop into the river when the tribes people cut him free. He soon becomes humble among the people of the tribe and is able to empathise with their rituals and simple living. Irons convinces him to join the order at the end of an exhausting first act.
Once he is fully immersed in the Jesuit society, the film really begins as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) arrives from Rome to adjudicate on the fate of the mission. A treaty has been signed in Europe to pass the land of the mission from Spain to Portugal. Ray McAnally’s character is the most fully realised as he manages to convey the the weight of the decision he has to make: hand over the missions as slaves or to see the international break up of the Jesuit order.
It’s a spectacular film with dramatic imagery and a powerful performance from De Niro (and a more satisfyingly subtle one from Ray McAnally). The story creaks under the weight of the spectacle as there is very little substance to the thematic elements or the characters within its simple tale. It treats the native tribe as little more than an exotic backdrop, a little local colour, to illustrate a very broadly drawn story of the conflict between love and hate.
Both love and hate fail. Religion collides with politics to create a murderous compromise.
- Robert De Niro & Martin Scorsese Still Plan to Do Another Gangster Movie (phoenixarizonafantastic.wordpress.com)
- The Mission (1986) (dadofknucklehead.wordpress.com)
- Iguazú Falls (Cataratas del Iguazú) (wanderingsean.wordpress.com)