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THE MISSION

Review by Gordon Justesen

Stars: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally, Aidan Quinn, Liam Neeson
Director: Roland Joffe
Audio: Dolby Digital 5.1, French Dolby Surround
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.35:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 125 Minutes
Release Date: May 13, 2003
 

"For me there is no redemption, no penance great enough."

"There is. But do you dare to try it?"

"Do you dare to see it fail?"

Film ****

The Mission is unquestionably one of the most poetic films ever made, both visually and in its storytelling. It's a piece of many elements; redemption, tragedy, and courage of the highest order. This is perhaps one of cinema's most dramatically powerful offerings, so much so that deserves to be ranked in the same league as Schindler's List and The Passion of the Christ.

But the one element of this film that creates the most striking effect is the cinematography. Rarely do you feel as if the setting is a character in itself. Few directors are capable of conveying such visual power. Terrence Malick is such an example, and although I haven't seen all of his films, director Roland Joffe (The Killing Fields), along with cinematographer Chris Menges (whose work won the film a much deserved Oscar), has achieved that stroke of brilliance with this outstanding looking production.

And to match the sunning look of the film is the brilliant screenplay by the late great Robert Bolt (Lawrence of Arabia). The screenplay reflects historical events that took place in South America in the year 1750. Bolt's script invents characters for the story, and they are richly developed with sheer authenticity and heart.

The film opens with a deceased Jesuit priest being tied to a cross by a tribe of Guarani Indians, and sent down a river into a thunderous waterfall. This results in the arrival of a replacement, a devoted servant of God named Gabriel (Jeremy Irons). Gabriel's intent is to carry on the work of the recently martyred priest. Once he comes face to face with the Guarani tribe, they accept him as one of them.

Not long after Gabriel's arrival, he comes across the path of Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), a mercenary who has been engaging in slave trading for European settlers at a nearby plantation. He takes in some Gurarni to provide work for the settlers, much against Gabriel's request to let the tribe proceed with the Jesuit mission. However, it won't be the last the two men see of each other.

Some time later, back at the plantation, the mercenary discovers his brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), engaging in an affair with his wife, who comes forth about her love for his brother. His tempers flare, and out of a flash of anger, Rodrigo kills his brother. This act of sin does have an effect on him, making him feel extremely guilt-ridden.

Gabriel goes to visit Rodrigo in prison, where the condemned man begs for redemption. The priest agrees to the offer, having him gaining repentance in the form of taking part in the Jesuit missionaries. His primary obstacle is to scale the waterfalls repeatedly, with a sword and heavy armor hanging off of him in a satchel. When Rodrigo is physically unable to repeat the penance after many times, he is forgiven and accepted into the missionaries.

It is here where the mission itself begins, as Gabriel and his fellow priests, including the newly ordained Rodrigo, live peacefully with the Indians. They create various musical instruments, and the Indians are taught to sing Christian hymns. The goal of the mission is to unite the Spanish and Portuguese governments, who control the territory, can one day live in pure peace with Christian natives.

Then the political climate begins to weigh in. Spain and Portugal have entered a treaty, one which will order Spain to hand over a great deal of territory to Portugal, land where many missionaries have already been established. The Vatican sends in an emissary named Altamirano (Ray McAnally), who will decide whether the missions will remain under the protection of the church or be done away with. Gabriel persuades Altamirano to leave the mission as it is, because without it, the Guarani tribe will be reduced to a lifetime of laboring and slave victims.

The decision made is that all priests, and Guarani Indians, shall elude the territory at once. The tribe refuses to leave their homeland, and the priests refuse to leave the tribe's side. With European troops closing in on the territory, the missionaries can only arm themselves with faith, the cross, and the power of God. It's clear at this point that the story will not end on a happy note.

This is as majestic and as powerful as motion pictures get. The film delivers strong performances from both Irons and De Niro, in a role that at the time had to have been a departure. His performance of Rodrigo represents one of the most heartfelt character transformations I've ever seen. And Irons hits the right note tremendously as the peaceful Gabriel as a man who doesn't want blood on his hands, but is ready to confront God at any point.

Overall, The Mission is a film that exercising goodwill amongst everyone, even those who are of different cultures, is the most courageous gesture any human can make. The actions made by the Jesuits in the effort to protect the Guarani tribe from harm are a bright shining example of this. The film also makes clear that it is inhuman for any government or force of people to impose themselves on a group of unsuspecting people, like the Guarani tribe.

Enough can't be said about this film. It's a sheer masterpiece, pure and simple, both as important story and as superior filmmaking piece. If there was ever a film that deserves to be discovered by anyone and everyone, The Mission is that film.

Video ****

Even though this release has been out almost two years, I'll be quite honest to say that this is one of the most outstanding presentations I've seen from Warner Bros. For them to take a film from 1986 and restore every inch of its every frame, and produce a magnificent looking disc is quite an accomplishment. Had I caught this two years ago, this would've definitely gotten top honors at that year's DMC awards.

As I mentioned earlier, the look of the film is a key element in its power, and Warner has done the movie absolute justice by mastering every frame of the film. The detail in the picture is astounding, and the image is breathtaking with its consistent sharp frame and awesome clearness. The South American jungle setting provides images that will stir your senses. To be quite honest, this may go on record as one of the finest looking presentations on record. It's that remarkable.

Audio ****

The same can be said for the sound of the disc. The Mission is quite a unique sounding experience as well, and Warner's re-mastering 5.1 mix conveys this notion completely. To start with, there's Ennio Morricone's ravishing score to the film, which has its own level of sounding beauty to match for the film's level of power. Morricone has composed many great scores, and this maybe his best piece of music yet! Dialogue is delivered wonderfully, and the surround sound quality is heard in outstanding form as a result of strong set pieces and brief moments of action. Remarkable in every sense.

Features ***1/2

This Two Disc set offering delivers an exceptional range of features.

Disc One includes a commentary track by director Roland Joffe, cast and crew highlights, a list of awards for the film, and a theatrical trailer.

Disc Two is basically an bonus documentary on the making of the film entitled "Omnibus". It covers plenty of ground, from the development of the film, to the production shoot, to the real life South American Indians who played a vital role in bringing The Mission to life. It's a most informative piece.

Summary:

The Mission is indeed a bold stroke of powerful filmmaking and storytelling, and it's a film that I've already considered to be one of the finest films of all time. My only regret is that I didn't discover it sooner. I strongly urge those who haven't seen this to discover this superb work of art.

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