Saturday, December 03, 2005

channeling Gene Siskel: The Mission

I rented The Mission (1986) last night to take a nostalgic trip up river with the Guarani again.

What a great film and a great piece of filmmaking.

It was hard enough to find (Hollywood Video had it in the stacks - VHS of course), but a great one for an evening in with your squeeze.

Be forewarned, this isn't a movie for Hollywood Endings. It's Roland Joffe's follow-up to The Killing Fields (1984 - also highly recommended), so maybe it carries on this thing with historic tragedy.

Side note-- I am reminded of a student who shared with me his own experience with the killing fields of Cambodia.

Like Dr. Haing S. Ngor he escaped, but only after learning his whole family was liquidated. Unlike Haing Ngor, America hasn't yet done to him what the Khmer Rouge could not.

The Mission is a movie of great beauty and great sadness. It follows the Jesuit missionaries in South America at the time when the governments of Spain and Portugal are dividing up the western hemisphere between them and the Catholic church must appease in order to maintain its influence.

The Jesuits have made a seeming paradise on earth with the converted Guarani and many other indigenous peoples. But paradises never last. The monarchies with their overt and tacit support of the slave trade want to the missions closed and with them the end of sanctuary for the locals.

A Vatican representative arrives to view the territory and decide whether the church will close the missions or defend them.


Jeremy Irons convinces as an inspired priest. This guy knows what is right and courageously goes after it. It is so clear to him, that one suspects he cannot last long in this world of compromise and politics.

Robert DeNiro is the pumping heart of this film as a slaver-turned-priest. All the passions and heartbreak in the backdrop of the film seem intensified in his character.

While the transportive qualities of the fine cinematography, authentic characters and soaring music deliver the message readily to the viewer, Rodrigo (DeNiro) is another lens for us to feel the conflict yet more deeply.

But the technical merits of the film render it a joy as well. The photography is reminiscent of National Geographic. The score is beautiful; one of Morricone's best and holds up well apart from the movie on CD.

And the script is a fine example of the fading art of "showing" the audience instead of "telling" us everything. I'd be shocked to find more dialogue in the script than white space.

The film's appreciation of silence gives the flavor of the scene a chance to develop while giving the regularly over-stuffed viewer time to digest what (s)he is seeing.


Not a happy film, as I said, but a great one. We are taken on a tour through the events that build up to the resolution. Each step brings us inexorably closer to our dread.

Watch it, appreciate it together and have heart-- not all tragedies are endings.


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