Spectacular scenery and an extraordinary high degree of production values can’t conceal serious flaws in The Mission, Goldcrest’s $23 million pic.
The script is based on a little-known but nonetheless intriguing historical incident in mid-18th century South America, pitting avaricious colonialists against the Jesuit order of priests. The fundamental problem is that the script is cardboard thin, pinning labels on its characters and arbitrarily shoving them into stances to make plot points.
The two principal actors, Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, work hard to animate their parts. But there is little to do. The Mission is probably the first film in which De Niro gives a bland, uninteresting performance.
The pic is set in 1750. Portugal and Spain are haggling over territorial boundaries which today cover those of Brazil, Paraguay and Argentina. Sitting in a refuge literally above the squabbling is a Jesuit mission established by Father Gabriel (Irons) as a safe place for native Indians. Spain would like Portugal to take over mission lands so it can continue its illicit slave trading unimpeded.
De Niro is cast as a slave trader, who invades what is to become mission territory to ensnare Indians for Spanish traders. He joins the Jesuits after he murders his brother (Aidan Quinn) for stealing his fiancee. His part following the conversion becomes strictly secondary to that of Irons.
Juicier performances come from the supporting players. Ray McAnally has great fun as the Cardinal who pulls the rug from under the missionaries to preserve significant Jesuit presence in Europe.
Director Roland Joffe has come up with some stunning scenes, using the impressive Cataratas del Iguazu to supreme advantage. On the downside, he botches the climactic battle scene when colonialists take over the mission. Pic was lensed over a 16-week period largely in Colombia and (for three weeks) at the Iguazu falls.
[Version reviewed was a 128-min. one – shown at the 1986 Cannes festival while pic was still in postproduction – featuring a final shot of McAnally staring playfully, enigmatically at the audience after the final extended credit crawl.]
1986: Best Cinematography.
Nominations: Best Picture, Director, Costume Design, Art Direction, Editing, Original Score