Romy Shiller

The Mission: A Commentary

In Film, review on November 3, 2011 at 7:46 am

(PUBLISHED February 23, 2011)

Adapt or perish, now as ever, is nature’s inexorable imperative.

H.G Wells

Director: Roland Joffé
Writer: Robert Bolt
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons and Ray McAnally

On Facebook, I posted as a status update that I was listening to the soundtrack of the film The Mission (1986). The first time I saw the film was several years after it came out. As I told Colin B., it was a warm June evening, I was outside in a park near a man-made lake. There was a special event which included an outdoor movie. A hot wind rustled the leaves on the trees around me. The air smelled of fresh-cut grass. My honey sat close to me on the bleachers. Yeah, it was a perfect moment – one that I’ll never forget – and perfect way to see this film.

Phil Edwards commented that it was a great film and soundtrack and a friend mentioned that, “For a society that predominantly self-identifies as ‘spiritual rather than religious’ this film nails that perplexing idea perfectly,” I decided to rent it. My surroundings were different but what a film!

Plot: 18th century Spanish Jesuits try to protect a remote South American Indian tribe in danger of falling under the rule of pro-slavery Portugal… Jeremy Irons plays a Spanish Jesuit who goes into the South American wilderness to build a mission in the hope of converting the Indians of the region. Robert De Niro plays a slave hunter who is converted and joins Irons in his mission. When Spain sells the colony to Portugal, they are forced to defend all they have built against the Portugese aggressors. (http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0091530/)

Robert De Niro – need I say more? Maybe I do… Okay, Robert De Niro plays Rodrigo Mendoza who makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them to nearby plantations. He is a mercenary and slaver. His character development and transformation are just great.

“Robert De Niro was born to a lapsed Catholic father and an atheist mother who had been raised as a Presbyterian. His parents did not want him to be baptized into the Catholic Church, but his grandparents had him baptized as a Catholic when he was two years old. (His parents were in the middle of a divorce at the time, and he was living with his paternal grandparents.)

Although De Niro has famously portrayed a number of overtly Catholic characters on screen, and he apparently has publicly indicated that he considers himself Catholic, there is no indication that he has ever lived as a practicing Catholic.” (http://www.adherents.com/people/pd/Robert_DeNiro.html)

Jeremy Irons plays an adventurous Jesuit priest, tough but mild mannered Father Gabriel. As an actor in general, Irons is a force to be reckoned with – pairing him up with De Niro is brilliant.

The scenery is stunning. I’m a nature fanatic and I was very satisfied with the representation of nature. A waterfall and forest – Blissful.  A Jesuit Priest in the film says that the locale is a ‘Garden of Eden.’ Um, yeah. (Filming locations:  Cartagena, Bolívar, Colombia; Don Dieguito, Magdalena, Colombia; Fort Amherst, Chatham, Kent, England, UK; Iguazú National Park, Argentina; Iguazú Waterfalls, Misiones, Argentina; Iguaçu Falls, Parque Nacional do Iguaçu, Foz do Iguaçu, Paraná, Brazil; Iguaçu River, Paraná, Brazil; Paraná River, Argentina; Paraná River, BrazilParaná River, Paraguay.)

I find the water motif overwhelming – and that’s saying a lot, I assure you. Water is both lethal and beautiful in this film. Water is present in many forms; rain, lakes, mist, waterfalls…it can quench thirst or kill.

The music by Ennio Morricone – I own the soundtrack and listen to it to de-stress or on Sundays to mellow out. It has become an integral part of my life. I think that I’ll listen to it now – while writing this. Okay, it’s on now. Glad I thought of it. You know, I think that I’ll buy the DVD. I own films that are half as good.

There is so much to say about religion versus spirituality here. I like the dichotomy presented. The paradoxes are really well depicted. My friend Leslie Barcza (blog: http:// barczablog.com ) said, “Spirituality is the buzz around the Burning Bush, the aura Moses brought back from his visit to the mountaintop to get the 10 commandments; religion, in contrast, is the whole system, a sum of the commandments themselves and all the writings & teachings arising from the revelations.” The themes include good versus evil, rich versus poor, civilized versus not civilized…There are age-old dualities here but it feels new and refreshing in this film.

Many people use this film as a great example of unity where apparent discrepancy lies. Obviously, this expands beyond faith. “The Mission depicts the challenge of conscience that confronts us all in a world convulsed by power, greed, and violence. Its power lies in the way it convinces us that the fierce conflict-ridden world we see on the screen is similar to the one in which we live today. At the same time, The Mission is a deeply moving film that reminds us of the vitality of love and the transforming power of acts of conscience.(http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/films/films.php?id=5042)

I read a review that said, “The story is based on real events, and the film rarely strays from telling the unembellished truth. The movie looks wonderful, with fabulous scenery shown off through outstanding cinematography. Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons both turn in intense and convincing performances, supported by a cast that includes genuine Guarani Indians – descendants of those who experienced these events for real. Thoughtful, touching and with great emotional depth, the film makes its case without descending into sentimentality or clichés.” (http://movie-gazette.com/281/the-mission)

It does not matter what your faith is. I believe that as many people as possible should see this film.

Award info:

Academy Awards

BAFTA Film Awards

Cannes Film Festival

  •  Palme d’Or – Roland Joffé (won)
  • Technical Grand Prize – Roland Joffé (won)

Golden Globe Awards

Romy Shiller is a pop culture critic and holds a PhD in Drama from the University of Toronto. Her academic areas of concentration include film, gender performance, camp and critical thought. She lives in Montreal where she continues her writing. All books are available online.

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