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The Mission – DVD Review

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by Steven G (subscribe)
Too much tertiary education... Former performer/wrestler...Former teacher... Scientist... Published author... Father... Want to be a writer if I grow up...
Published October 6th 2018
The Mission will make you think and wince
Okay... It's 1987. Every student at St Ignatius College, Athelstone in South Australia – years 8 through 13 – are herded onto buses and taken to a theatre in Norwood. We knew we were going to see a film about Jesuits (yes, our school was a Jesuit school) and to say we were underwhelmed is probably selling our negativity short. My friends and I drove in vehicles there; my partner even came with in one of the cars (Barbara, who I may have mentioned once or twice before in these columns), even though she was in year 11 and we were in year 12.

So, there we were, in the theatre, 500-plus boys and a smattering of girls (back then, St Ignatius was a boys' school, girls being a part of the student community only in years 11, 12 and 13), ready for a film we were not looking forward to. My partner snuggled in beside me and we waited…

Come the climax of the film. A theatre of schoolboys (essentially) was completely silent. We could not say a thing. This religious film had suckered us in completely.

That film was The Mission.
The Mission, movie, poster
Movie Poster (from Wikipedia)

The Mission – 1986. Director: Roland Joff้; Writer: Robert Bolt
Starring: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Cherie Lunghi, Ronald Pickup, Chuck Low, Liam Neeson)

It's interesting to look back on films that made an impact on us when we were younger (as I did here). And I got a chance to do that recently when I was given a DVD copy of The Mission – bare bones version, just the movie and the trailer. I did a little bit of research, discovered that it was British, it lost money at the time and it received mixed reviews, though it did get nominated for some awards (winning the Palme d'Or at Cannes). And I discovered I own the soundtrack album (on cassette), which is a quite fantastic piece of work by Ennio Morricone.

The film is based on real events – which we learnt a bit about at school – but it must be remembered there are some historical inaccuracies to make for better narrative flow. Now, a brief rant, if I may – of course, there are inaccuracies! It's a film! If you want historically accurate, watch a documentary or read a book. You want entertainment that gives an overview of the facts in some sort of semblance to the truth - see a movie. (Or read Wikipedia… )

So, to the film.

First and foremost, it is beautiful. It looks stunning. The opening scene of the waterfall and the cross, leading to the Gabriel's Oboe music, is incredible. The village of the native people is quite impressively realised. And that final showdown – wow!

The actors also deliver very good performances. Jeremy Irons as Father Gabriel is very well cast, giving the perfect amount of gravitas and desperation for the role of the doomed priest. Robert De Niro as Mendoza occasionally goes into over-acting mode, but, especially when Mendoza is carting that huge load as part of his penance, you can see why he is regarded as one of the finest actors of a generation. However, the stand-out for me is Ray McAnally as Cardinal Altamirano. He shows so superbly the bind this man was caught in, and when the film reaches its climax, and he rues what has happened, he is speaking for generations to come.

The story is well-crafted, but being based on reality probably helps that along. It follows Father Gabriel, who builds a Jesuit mission in Argentina. A slaver – Mendoza – kills his brother in a duel and is forced to do penance, and so he and the priest go to the mission together.

However, there is political manoeuvring behind the scenes, and the mission is to be given to the Portuguese for land and slaves, the Spanish are involved, and it is all quite messy. The priest and Mendoza lead the natives against the army. It goes about as well as you'd expect – they are all killed mercilessly. All of them.

This is not a Hollywood ending, not by any stretch of the imagination.

So, no, not a feel-good film, I am afraid.

Then there is that climax. Nothing is left to the imagination. The men, women and children are slaughtered. They do not stand a chance. Jeremy Irons falls and a child takes up his mantle... and is also killed. And when we see a baby trampled underfoot by the army, well… in 1987, Barbara held my hand so tight that if I hadn't been in a personal state of "oh my God" I would have cried out.

It is done so well that we came out of the cinema in a state of shock, hating the Spanish and Portuguese and actually feeling sorry for the Jesuits and wanting to support them all the more.

Watching it now, it is much more nuanced than that. This is not a black and white, good guys versus bad guys film at its core. This looks at politics and how good men are put in unenviable positions. How the normal people can never understand what is really going on behind the scenes. How men are puppets to powers of a man greater than they can realise. It does make you wonder about the people in power in our time and why they make the decisions they make.

Do not go into this film expecting to come out singing a Disney-esque happy tune. Do expect to think and wince.

The Mission is a good film, undeservedly ignored nowadays, and well worth your time.

You can get it on YouTube for a nominal price right about here:

As always - please leave all the comments you can!

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Why? A film to make you think.
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