I still couldn't help wondering whether these Indians would not have preferred that the sea and wind had not brought any of us to them.
After the 1492 publicity tour by an Italian sailor whose promotional skills were better than his sense of direction, the nations of Europe practically tripped over each other in their rush to carve empires out of the newly-"discovered" continents of the Western Hemisphere. In addition to the secular nation-states, the Catholic Church got in on the act as well. Disputes over arbitrary boundary lines on inaccurate maps were common; after all, when people sitting comfortably at home in Europe are drawing the lines, there are bound to be inaccuracies.
If the lands of the New World were treated like just so many squares on a chessboard, the people of those lands fared even worse. At best, they were an annoyance and an obstacle to be overcome; at worst, they became commodities over which the European powers could haggle and bargain.
In the midst of these struggles were the missionaries, who saw themselves as the Indians' best friends, but who in their own way forced tremendous change and upheaval in the native cultures.
Facts of the Case
After a Jesuit priest is martyred in the jungles of South America, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons, Lolita (1997), Dungeons and Dragons, The Man in the Iron Mask) comes to take his place and continue his work. His audience is the Guaraní, a tribe of indigenous people who to his eyes seem primitive and backward, existing as hunter-gatherers in the vast tropical forests. He seeks to convert them to Catholicism and to convert them to an agricultural, communal way of life.
Also seeking the Guaraní is Captain Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro, Taxi Driver, The Godfather Part II, Cape Fear (1991)). Mendoza's designs for them are slightly less altruistic; he hunts them down, captures them, and sells them as slaves. The Guaraní technically live in Spanish territory, and Spanish law forbids slavery; the neighboring Portuguese, however, are not so squeamish. Mendoza, as a mercenary, conducts slave raids in Spanish territory and brings his captures back to Portuguese lands. His customers, however, are just as likely to be Spanish as Portuguese. When Mendoza kills his brother in a fit of jealousy, his guilt pushes him to a religious conversion and a life with Father Gabriel and the Jesuits.
When the Guaraní territory, including the Jesuit missions, is being ceded to the Portuguese as a result of a European treaty, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally, My Left Foot, The Fourth Protocol, The Sicilian) journeys to South America. His task is to decide the fate of the Jesuits and their work; his decision will be influenced more by European court politics than anything he witnesses in the jungle.
At the story's heart are the Guaraní themselves, who care little for the machinations of European powers and are content to live a peaceful, simple life in the jungle.
Director Roland Joffé (Vatel, The Scarlet Letter, Super Mario Brothers) made The Mission from a script by Robert Bolt, the scribe behind such notable screenplays as Lawrence of Arabia, Doctor Zhivago, and The Bounty. In keeping with Bolt's earlier works, The Mission is an exercise in epic storytelling, albeit on a curiously personal scale. This story of colliding empires is reduced, for the most part, to a story of three men—Father Gabriel, Mendoza, and Altamirano. The story is complex, involving historical events and intrigues and all manner of double-dealing amongst the competing factions. However, the film comes down to three men, each trying to do the will of God as he sees it, constrained by the realities of the world they live in. Gabriel is selfless, a man of peace doing what he feels is best for the Guaraní. Mendoza too loves the Guaraní, but is torn between helping them peacefully and the echoes of his mercenary past. Altamirano knows what the Church wants him to do before he even arrives on the scene, and yet cannot help but be moved by what he finds there. Bolt takes a tale that could have been a morass of exposition and makes it simple and moving, focusing on the emotions of these men and the Guaraní.
The acting is good as well, though not as good as one might hope. Jeremy Irons is good as Father Gabriel, showing the character's passion for his work and for the Guaraní, filtered through the reserve and politeness that a priest must maintain at all times. On the other hand, Robert De Niro's performance was uneven and a bit disappointing. (I fully realize that I will probably be struck by lightning for saying that.) De Niro has some amazing moments, particularly during his conversion and penance, but at other times seems to lack his usual inner fire. It is often said that the great actors—like De Niro—can convey volumes with just a glance or posture; there are scenes in The Mission where one can almost sense De Niro relying on this belief, rather than infusing his character with real emotion. McAnally has one of the toughest assignments in the film, including extensive voiceover narrations in the form of a letter from the Cardinal back to the Pope.
A few members of the supporting cast deserve honorable mention as well. Liam Neeson makes one of his early film appearances as one of the Jesuit priests; his part is not a large one, but his presence is always welcome. Ronald Pickup (Lolita (1997), A&E's Horatio Hornblower) is delightfully devious as the Portuguese emissary, giving a performance that reminded me of Claude Rains.
The most remarkable performances in the film come from people who actually aren't actors at all. Joffé and Bolt were convinced that in order to make the film honest and true to life, it was essential to find actual South American Indians to represent the Guaraní. After some searching, they discovered the Waunana, a group living on reservations in Colombia, where the film was to be shot. They had little exposure to 20th century technology or Western culture; no one among them really had much idea what making a film was about, or what it meant to appear in one. Once they became involved in the process, however, many of them took to it quite naturally. None of them spoke any English, of course, and only a few spoke any Spanish, so communication between Joffé and his indigenous cast was difficult. He often gave them only general descriptions of scenes, and very little specific direction, allowing them to act naturally rather than according to his preconceived notions. It worked remarkably well, and the Waunana soon began directing themselves, even coming up with lines in their own language in certain scenes.
The video and audio presentation of The Mission is nice but not outstanding. The picture is better than I expected. It is sharp and solid. Colors are vivid when necessary, and sometimes a bit muted when appropriate. There are some amazing sun-dappled shots of the jungle that almost make you able to feel the mud and the heat. The transfer is not perfect, and is not without some of the usual problems of aliasing and so forth, but I found it free of most glaring defects such as extreme edge enhancement, pixelization, blocking, or bleeding. The audio mix is a surprisingly good Dolby Digital 5.1 remix that will fill your home with the ambient sounds of the jungle. It has a lot of punch, especially in the waterfall scenes. However, these scenes also show the limitations of this audio mix, as they do tend to get a bit hollow sounding at times. Ambient effects, such as the sounds of the jungle, are spread nicely among the surround channels and provide for some sense of directionality.
Warner Home Video has assembled a respectable collection of special features for this Special Edition. What they lack in numbers they make up for in depth. Chief among them is a feature-length commentary track from Roland Joffé. Joffé spends a lot of time explaining his philosophy in making the film, and what drew him to this particular story. He also mixes in a fair amount of practical information, such as how various shots were achieved and so forth. He's particularly proud—with good reason—of how well his real-life visuals hold up in today's age of rampant CGI. He also spends quite a bit of time discussing his experiences with and memories of the Waunana people.
Adding more information about the Waunana is the lengthy documentary Omnibus: The Making of The Mission. Omnibus runs for almost a full hour, and is included as Disc Two of this Special Edition. It is quite well done, and is as much a story about the Waunana as it is the story of making the film. If there is any complaint, it is that the image quality of this documentary has not held up very well over the years, and it doesn't look very good on DVD at all.
Other features include cast and crew filmography highlights and a theatrical trailer. The trailer seems a bit at odds with the movie itself, with its portentous narration by one of those "movie trailer voice" guys.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Joffé's direction is effective as well, capturing some brilliant South American scenery and giving the film a properly panoramic feel. And, as he states in the commentary, he went out of his way to capture the Waunana in as natural a way as possible. Still, there are scenes in the film that make me uncomfortable, where the Waunana seem more a part of the scenery than the cast, more like the exotic birds in The Thin Red Line than human beings. The film feels at times like those patronizing old movies about exotic cultures that we watched in the fourth grade. Joffé reinforces this feeling of uneasiness with statements in his commentary track about the state of the Waunana when he found them, how he was the first white man they had met, and so on. However, when watching the documentary on disc two, the Waunana seem to be dressed in relatively modern clothing, and it is stated at least once that these are people who have access to both radio and television. Simply put, his audio account doesn't seem to square with the video record in the documentary. It almost feels as though Joffé embroidered his stories a bit to make the commentary track more dramatic; on the other hand, I concede that the people may have altered their appearance—voluntarily or at the suggestion of Joffé's people—for purposes of making the documentary.
One scene in the documentary made me extremely uncomfortable as well. Viewers are privy to a negotiating session between the Waunana and the production company over the terms of their employment. This scene, in truth, didn't seem all that far removed from negotiations between the Europeans and the natives that might have happened during the period in which The Mission is set.
A more mundane problem is that the various strands of the narrative, represented by the three central characters, never completely gel the way they should. The results are a bit disjointed. To me, it felt like the film couldn't decide if it was telling Gabriel's story, or Mendoza's, or Cardinal Altamirano's. In addition to this, the ending of the film suffers when all of the political machinations that were glossed over so neatly earlier catch up with it. The result is a battle scene that should be climactic but instead feels a bit muddled, due partly to the script and partly to Joffé's direction, which is good for most of the film but seems inadequate to this final challenge.
Despite a few reservations, there's still more to like about The Mission than there is to dislike. Warner Bros. did a good job with this Special Edition. The audio and video are both better than I had expected, and the collection of additional content is solid if a bit underwhelming.
Not guilty! A good effort by Joffé and all concerned.
We stand adjourned.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
• Commentary by Director Roland Joffé
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