Two hours is a long slog through the jungles of South America, but when the cinematography in 1986's "The Mission" is so good and the two stars, Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons, are so compelling, it's worth it. Well, almost. OK, close enough.
Whether or not you agree with the Spanish occupation of the Americas, the Catholic Church's attempts to convert the peoples of the Americas to Christianity, or the endeavors of Europeans in general to exploit the New World is beside the point. Screenwriter Robert Bolt ("Lawrence of Arabia," "Doctor Zhivago," "A Man for All Seasons"), music composer Ennio Morricone ("The Good, the Bad and the Ugly," "The Untouchables"), and director Roland Joffé ("The Killing Fields," "City of Joy") give us a moving, inspiring, even rousing tale set against a politically sensitive and socially volatile backdrop. As I say, they almost succeed.
The filmmakers preface their movie by saying, "The historical events represented in this story are true, and occurred around the borderlands of Argentina, Paraguay & Brazil in the year 1750."
The narrative begins in the mid 1700's at a time when the Church and State in Europe were in major conflict; in particular the kings of Spain and Portugal were trying to assert their authority over the Catholic Church, and the matter of the Americas became paramount in their disputations. According to the movie, Portugal wanted to enslave the Indians and use them to exploit the land; the Church wanted to convert the Indians to Christianity and protect them "from the worst depredation of the settlers"; and the Spanish just wanted to get out of the way. One mission especially comes into play, San Miguel, run by a kind and dedicated Jesuit, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). When Portugal and Spain change the borders of some of their South American holdings, the mission comes under the jurisdiction of Portugal, who want all the missions destroyed and the native people subjugated. Father Gabriel is not too keen on the idea.
Be that as it may, the story is really about another man, a Spanish mercenary and slave trader named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro). Until he commits a heinous crime for which he cannot forgive himself, he hunts, captures, and sells the Indians of Father Gabriel's territory. He does not consider this a crime, but a business. Nevertheless, after he perpetrates a murder not even he can justify, he seeks redemption. As an act of penance, he joins Father Gabriel and becomes a Jesuit, one of the most loyal the mission has ever seen.
At first, the movie traces Rodrigo's development as a human being, his inner discords, and then it takes a turn toward more outward conflicts when the mission comes into jeopardy. Indeed, the entire last third or so of the movie shifts from spiritual contemplation to action sequences, ending with a fairly obvious and perhaps overstated moral lesson.
That's OK. It's really just watching De Niro and Irons in their roles that's most satisfying, both men bringing a dignity and credibility to their characterizations. Additionally, we see Ray McAnally as the ambiguously conflicted Catholic Cardinal Altamirano, who comes to the Americas to settle the matter of the missions; Aidan Quinn as Felepe Mendoza, Rodrigo's younger brother, who is in love with the same woman as Rodrigo; Cherie Lunghi as Carlotta, the woman who draws the attention of both brothers; and Liam Neeson as Father John Fielding, Gabriel's assistant.
Then there's all that scenery. Filmed almost entirely on location in Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, and Paraguay by cinematographer Chris Menges ("The Killing Fields," "Michael Collins"), the visuals are often stunning, made all the better in high definition. As a simple travelogue alone, the movie is worthwhile for the spectacle that abounds in practically every scene.
While "The Mission" makes the viewer question the theory of "might makes right" and demonstrates Man's inhumanity to Man, it does so at the price of being a little too pious for its own good. Be that as it may, the movie's heart is in the right place.
Using a dual-layer BD50 and a VC-1 codec, Warner Bros. capture the lush beauty of the film's photography in its original 2.40:1 theatrical aspect ratio. Colors are quite natural and realistic, never excessively bright or flashy, just lifelike most of the time, if a touch veiled on occasion, perhaps intentionally. There is also excellent object delineation, with exemplary detailing. Although skin tones are a bit soft and drab sometimes, black levels are deep, and a light, inherent film grain provides an appropriate texture to the image.
Using lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1, the engineers nicely capture the film's wide front-channel stereo spread. However, there apparently was not much surround activity to work with, so don't expect much more than a light musical ambience from the rear or side speakers. We do find good, strong dynamics, though, and an ultrasmooth midrange clarity seldom found in any motion-picture soundtrack. A taut, solid bass rounds out an agreeable audio experience.
The primary bonus item is an audio commentary by director Roland Joffe, who gives his side of the story, why he wanted to make the movie and all and what it meant to him. The other major item is a 1986 BBC "Omnibus" documentary, "People on a Mission," fifty-seven minutes about the filmmaking itself and the native Americans of the Waunana communities of Colombia who participated as extras in the movie. Warner Bros. present it in standard-definition, non-anamorphic widescreen.
The extras wrap with thirty-three scene selections; a theatrical trailer; English, French, and Italian spoken languages; French, Dutch, and Spanish subtitles; and English and Italian captions for the hearing impaired.
"The Mission" has such high and noble ambitions, it's hard to knock it. However, it does seem longer than its 125-minute running time, and we pretty know pretty much how it's going to end far in advance of its inevitable conclusion. Still, it may be worth it for the lovely location shooting and the lead performances by De Niro and Irons.