The Mission (1986) 3.57/5 (3)


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Rating: The Bad – 57.8
Genre: Adventure
Duration: 125 mins
Director: Roland Joffe
Stars: Robert De Niro, Jeremy Irons, Ray McAnally

Confused,  badly paced, misconceived, cliched, and ham-fisted piece of film-making hidden behind an utterly magnificent score. Essentially, director Roland Joffe and writer Robert Bolt attempt to tell three stories simultaneously: the work of the early missionaries in South America; the redemption of a slaver; and the oppression of a native people by western powers. Perhaps, they could’ve successfully blended two of these stories into one movie but in attempting to blend all three they do none of them any justice.

In trying to do too much, the film comes across as rushed and lacking in substance. The people on whom our sympathy is supposed to rest (the native South American tribes) are left almost entirely unexplored. Where was our introduction to their customs, their learning of and blending with western/Christian customs? In fact, we didn’t get to know even one single native character in the entire film. The evil-doers in this film are painted in the most trite cliches right down to their posh British accents. Why Portuguese and Spanish should speak English at all is an obvious criticism and not one that should be leveled at this film alone. However, in the light of the more recent ‘Apocalypto’ – a film set in the same part of the world only 100 years or so beforehand and which went to such lengths as to use authentic native South American languages – The Mission seems a more obvious target for such criticisms today.

The acting in The Mission is decent but within the misconceived confines of the film, it is snapshot out of any believable context. Robert De Niro does not seem as dedicated to the part as he usually would’ve been at that time judging by his decision not to slim down for his scenes where his character was supposed to have been wasting away for six months in a self-imposed penance. Jeremy Irons is good but has limited screen time and in fact the same can be said for all the main players.

However, for all these problems, The Mission remains a film which the audience really wants to like. Not because of the subject matter which has been addressed in countless other films but because we so desperately want this film to be worthy of Ennio Morricone’s mesmeric score. Considering he is one of the best composers in the history of cinema, it’s no small matter to claim that his compositions for The Mission are among his most ingenious. His is a haunting, lingering score that will stay with you for the rest of your life whether you ever see the film again or not. In fact, the score is so good that many of the film’s scenes work solely because of it. Take the climactic scene, for example, where Irons’ character plays the martyr. All that’s missing from this cliched finale is a slow-motion Tom Cruise on horse-back. However, the score elevates it to the point that we are moved despite simultaneously cringing. Alas, even a great score is not enough to save a film so weak in most other respects.

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