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The Mission

November 14, 2015

The Mission (1986)
Director: Roland Joffé
Actors: Jeremy Irons, Robert De Niro, Ray McAnally

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Review: Jesuit Father, Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), takes over a perilous mission in the jungles above Iguazu Falls, and slowly wins the favour of the native tribes there despite the nefarious input of colonialists – including the mercenary, Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). After Mendoza slays his brother in a bout of jealousy, he descends into a deep bout of penitence, and decides to join Gabriel’s mission. When the ruling Spanish and Portugese plan to close the mission, Gabriel and Mendoza are left with stark decisions as to whether to abandon their work with the natives, or rebel against the colonialists.

Synopsis: The Mission is a classic exemplar of the poverty of cerebral Anglo-American ‘arthouse’ cinema in the ’80s – after the end of the fabled New Hollywood movement of the preceding decade. The fact that this even won the coveted Palme d’Or at Cannes only attests to the mediocrity that must have been on offer around this time.

Of course, the telling of the politics of a Jesuit mission deep in the South American jungle in the 1750s offers the filmmakers ample opportunity to produce a marvellous canvas of gorgeous photography and period detail (and they don’t disappoint in that regard), but the film’s storytelling and direction is irredeemably crass. The pacing is all wrong: within the opening 25 minutes, De Niro’s brutal colonialist has had his character-defining ‘tragedy’, and each of the characters are so clearly ciphers – mere pawns in the filmmakers’ transparent storytelling construct. Beyond the open goal of an evocative setting, even the direction is clumsy. Am I the only one to notice some very ropey pans and cuts? Also, the film is an exposé of a time when Western cinema was still struggling to film stories of indigenous peoples in modes other than unintentionally stereotypical and condescending. The Mission, though empathetic in content, is ethnographically very incurious about its native tribespeople, and this is the final nail in the coffin for its mediocre end-result. (November 2015)

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