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The Mission: Special Edition

Warner Home Video

Starring Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro

Written by Robert Bolt
Directed by Roland Joffé

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

Winner of the Cannes Film Festival's 1986 Palm d'Or, and nominated for a host of other awards around the world, The Mission was almost guaranteed not to fail. It's nearly impossible to conceive how a film with this pedigree two world-class actors in perfect form, a cinematographer with a knack for breathtaking images, a celebrated composer channeling the heavens for a near-perfect score, and a historical narrative depicting the violent clash of cultures in an exotic locale penned by the veteran screenwriter of some of the great epics of movie history could come up anywhere short of brilliance.

And yet, it's just kind of, well... you know, just sort of... uh... OK.

Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro star as 18th Century Jesuit priests caught between the political power struggles of the Spanish and Portuguese monarchies, the survival of their order, and the fate of their careful missions to the Guarani people of South America. Irons and De Niro give incredible performances in two very different roles: Irons as a stoic believer able to reach the suspicious Guarani with his gentle faith, and De Niro (in his best performance ever out of his usual milieu) as reformed mercenary and slave trader who chooses to repent for a crime of passion by serving the indigenous tribespeople he once callously butchered. The bond the two Jesuits form while helping the Guarani develop a more sophisticated model for their society is severely tested when church officials order them to abandon their work in favor of economic realpolitik.

In addition to the vivid characters created by the two stars in The Mission, the rest of the cast is fleshed out by an impressive group of veterans and amateurs, including journeyman Ray McAnally, young performers Liam Neeson and Aidan Quinn, and the remarkable presence of a Colombian Waunana Indian tribe standing in for the extinct Guarani. There's barely a false note in the performances, which makes the emotional impotence of the film even more remarkable.

Sophomore director Roland Joffé must take a parcel of credit for the failure to mine something more arresting from this potent material. While his touch is delicate, Joffé shows a deflating predilection for the obvious: His heroes are sanctified and his villains arch, and although his overall vision is thrillingly epic, his intimate moments are flat and pedestrian. Preposterously, he manages to stage charged conflicts between Irons and De Niro without causing a stir.

Sadly, though, most of the blame is owed to screenwriter Robert Bolt, who wrote The Mission some 20 years after making his name with award-winning screenplays for A Man for All Seasons, Doctor Zhivago and Lawrence of Arabia. While his text is sturdy, it's missing momentum, and instead of feeling desperate, the film's crucial moments emit the passive whimper of a lost cause. Mostly this is because Bolt's dialogue trades substance for poetic platitudes. When Irons pleadingly delivers the film's most memorable line, "If might is right, then love has no place in the world," it's beautiful to listen to his lilting performance, but within Bolt's context the sentiment is paralogical. You half-expect De Niro to smack him across the face, shake him by the shoulders and yell, "So, whaddaya gonna do about it?"

Credit must go to Bolt and Joffé for the film's surprisingly affectionate view of the Jesuits, as missionaries are commonly cast as brutish bullies in mainstream films. But they also fall head-over-heels for the myth of the noble savage, and when the cards are laid out, the Jesuits are finally lauded by the film's creators only as Marxist pioneers martyred by the onrushing crush of the unforgiving capitalist bone thresher. Far too often, Bolt's script feels doctored by a freshman college student fresh out of their first Latin American studies course, and Joffé is only too willing to complement its simplistic treatment of complex moral situations with images of crying Guarani children, just in case we didn't pick up on who the good guys are.

Still, there's little Joffé or Bolt can do to diminish the incredible power of Chris Menges' stirring (and Academy Award-winning) cinematography, or Ennio Morricone's angelic music, which is possibly the best score of the 1980s not written by John Williams. Had Warner Home Video included a supplemental score-only audio track, The Mission would, in that configuration, undoubtedly improve in effect, and possibly even come close to the great work of art it should've been.

Warner does present the film in a decent anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) and a newly remastered Dolby Digital 5.1 audio track. There is one extra audio track, in which Joffé comments on the film, offering some interesting anecdotes about working with the Waunana, but also elaborating on his muddled views of the movie's events and attempting some half-hearted connections between his film and current events.

Even better than The Mission, however, is the hour-long documentary Omnibus: The Making of The Mission, found on the second platter of this two-disc Special Edition. Chronicling the European film crew's relationship with the Waunana Indians, Omnibus is a candid, amusing, and effective cultural document of the unsophisticated tribe, who were at first wary of exploitation at the hands of white con men, quickly adapted to work as actors (a skill with no equivalent in their own culture; previously they believed that all events dramatized on television were real), and ultimately threatened a work stoppage when the film's producers attempted to blur the lines of their contracts. No doubt intended, in part, as a "social justice" document, the film also broaches the tribe's demands for assumed political rights.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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