On Screen: The Mission

Written by Robert Bolt

Directed by Roland Joffe

Warner Bros

There’s a brief exchange in Citizen Kane that crystallizes my feelings about The Mission. Orson Welles/Kane is looking at a group photo of a rival newspaper’s distinguished staff. His aide-de-camp, Bernstein, remarks that with journalists like that it’s no wonder the rival is such a good newspaper. Rejoins Kane: “Wrong, Mr. Bernstein, it’s a good idea for a newspaper.”

The Mission‘s creators constitute an impressive moviemaking staff. Almost everyone on it is the sort of person who, when mentioned in reviews or press handouts, gets his name parted by a parenthesis enclosing his best or latest achievement: producer David (Chariots of Fire) Puttnam, writer Robert (Lawrence of Arabia) Bolt, director Roland (The Killing Fields) Joffe. This staff has solid material to work on: a true story that has not only the lineament of timeless tragedy but also topical implications for our age of liberation theology and revolutionary priests in Latin America.

Expensively produced, The Mission has some real sights to show its audience: towering waterfalls, gleaming armour, native folk-ways, blindingly white churches standing in forests of soothing green, the worldly passions of the nobility, the other-worldly passion of self-sacrificing priests, the lash of the imperialist’s rod, the trust in the Savior’s rood, gestures and avowals of Shakespearian largeness. In fact, the audience is treated to everything except the sort of film drama in which ideas are fully dramatized and tested, not just tossed about; in which three dimensional characters are slowly revealed, layer by layer, and are not mere marionettes wired to make impressive speeches and gestures; in which photography and movement conspire to draw the viewer into an alien world, not just offer a series of impressive postcard pictures in motion. The Mission is a good idea for a movie.

The story is simple yet full of political and moral implication. In mid-eighteenth century South America, a brave Jesuit missionary, Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons), makes contact with, then converts, the hitherto isolated Guarani Indians. Under his guidance, the natives form a community that is approximately socialistic, certainly self-sufficient, and intensely Christian. Spanish and Portuguese slavers prey upon the natives, but the worst one of all, Mendoza (Robert De Niro), in agony at having killed his brother in a fight over a woman, becomes a Jesuit under Father Gabriel’s rule and the most fervent protector of the Guarani. Constructed on land initially held by Spain (which had outlawed slavery), the mission is ceded by the Treaty of Madrid to slave-mongering Portugal. Although the priests vehemently protest, the ecclesiastical diplomat, Altamirano, fearing reprisals against the Jesuits back in Europe, commands Father Gabriel to abandon his parishioners to their exploiters. Gabriel and Mendoza both resist, the former passively, the latter martially. Both men, and many of their charges, are slaughtered.

No wonder Robert Bolt was attracted to such material. Like Tolstoy, this British dramatist uses storytelling to ask the question, what is a good man? Or, more precisely, what is a man good for? In his fine essay, “A Modern Man For All Seasons” (Esquire, December 1962). Bolt remarks on how easy it is to know when a knife or a car is good (the knife cuts cleanly, the car runs smoothly), but how difficult it is to say when a person is good, since a person can’t be judged solely, or even mainly, by how well he performs a particular function. Lenin, for instance, was a genius at fomenting revolution. Did that make him a good man? Jimmy Carter was a dud at administering the presidency. Does that make him a bad man? Bolt’s Thomas More (in A Man For All Seasons) abandons his post as Lord Chancellor and tries to keep silent about King Henry’s apostasy; yet the pressure of his enemies backs More into heroic, saintly intransigence. Thus a man may fail in his function and still be a moral success. Bolt’s Lawrence forges a desert people into a heroic alliance, but the pressure of his followers pushes him into vile slaughter and self-degradation. Thus a man may fulfill his function and be a moral failure.

In The Mission Father Gabriel steadfastly maintains his stance of nonviolence, while Mendoza reverts to his former (his true?) instinct for violence. Both men place their natures at the service of the Indians. Both men lie dead at the end, and all around them lie Indians, slaughtered whether they marched as warriors with Mendoza or under Gabriel’s standard of nonviolent resistance. Are Gabriel and Mendoza good men? It is to Bolt’s credit that he offers no easy answers.

But in order to put his questions vividly in the medium of film, Bolt needs moviemaking that is both expansive and intimate, directing and photography that can capture both the gorgeous sunrise over a wilderness and the dangerous parley of diplomats at close quarters. For Bolt’s script-writing talent is strikingly balanced. Playwrights such as Paddy Chayefsky insist on making the big screen into a forum for talking heads (Network); their scripts would work just as well on stage or TV. Playwrights such as Jean Cocteau are willing to dampen their verbal fireworks and rely mainly on the visual resources of the screen (Beauty and the Beast). Bolt stands squarely in the middle. He alternates long scenes of verbal eloquence with purely visual passages.

Everyone recalls the sequence in Lawrence of Arabia in which Lawrence miraculously saves a follower who’s been left behind in the desert. This wordless sequence is all the more effective for being bracketed between scenes of extended debate between Lawrence and suspicious Arab allies. The alternation perfectly suits Bolt’s predilection for heroes who are both intellectuals and men of action (e.g., Lawrence, Lord Byron in Lady Caroline Lamb, the various revolutionaries in Doctor Zhivago, Father Gabriel). And in David Lean, Bolt found the ideal collaborator, for Lean is a director with a knack for turning a roomful of quiet talk into a battlefield of nerves and a desert landscape into a line of poetry.

This sort of collaborative harmony seems to have been missing from The Mission. I got the feeling that Bolt submitted a concise, well-structured story treatment (a detailed plot outline with no dialogue or elaborate characterization) to some ambitious producers, who then proceeded to make a movie from the treatment without allowing Bolt to write an actual script. (Yet director Roland Joffe reportedly worked with Bolt on the script for six months.) Time and again while watching the movie, I sensed that necessary speeches had been cut, transitions blurred, interesting sidelights and counterpoints scanted.

Example: Father Gabriel succeeds in converting the Guarani only after they have killed another priest in a vicious parody of Christ’s crucifixion. We see Gabriel approaching the Indians, playing the flute for them, suffering his flute first to be broken and then curiously examined. In the next scene, the natives are completely converted and happily aiding Gabriel to set up the ideal Christian community. Why? How? Interest in a western musical instrument? The Guarani did indeed become successful musicians and instrument-makers, but how were their resistances lowered so that this might come to pass? Was Gabriel simply a better communicator than his predecessor? Did he strike any compromises between native ways and Christian beliefs?

If it be argued that this movie is mainly about the tragedy resulting from the Treaty of Madrid and that there was no time to present a convincing account of mass conversion, then why bother to show us Gabriel struggling to get to the Guarani in the first place? Why not begin the story with Gabriel already established among his new parishioners? I fear the answer is all too plain. By showing us Gabriel travelling to reach the Guarani, the moviemakers are able to get frightening and spectacular shots of Jeremy Irons struggling to climb huge cliffs beside breathtaking waterfalls. But, having achieved such a spectacle, the filmmakers aren’t willing to take dramatic responsibility for the situation that flows from that spectacle.

Another example: after telling Mendoza that she loves his brother, the beautiful gentlewoman Carlotta reassures her rejected suitor that he “deserves to be loved.” On the basis of Cherie Lunghi’s delivery, we may assume that Carlotta is sincere and not just trying to placate a jealous man. But why does he deserve to be loved? All we have seen of Mendoza up to this point is his depredations against the Indians. Later we will see his compassion. But within the initially cruel man, where is the promise of compassion that Carlotta perceived? Slave-hunting is immediately exciting on screen. Character exploration is more difficult.

Lack of clarity in the writing would be less noticeable if the movie had truly eloquent forward motion, not just spectacular settings and actions that are well photographed. The difference is crucial. Many separate shots in The Mission would make handsome still photographs, but only one long sequence made me feel that a segment of the story had been thoroughly dramatised visually.

This was the scene of Mendoza’s self-imposed penance for his brother’s murder, and it shows us what the rest of the film lacks. Following Gabriel up a steep cliff, Mendoza insists on carrying some of his possessions in a mesh backpack. The heavy load which makes the already difficult climb a torture is visible through the net fabric of the bag: the swords, knives, and breastplate of a mercenary. It is Mendoza’s violent past which he is carrying on his back; it is his past which is torturing him. When one of Gabriel’s acolytes, in an excess of revulsion and compassion cuts the pack and sends it hurtling into the water below, Mendoza grimly climbs down to retrieve it. He won’t let go of his past until it has sufficiently tortured him. After Mendoza finally reaches his destination and collapses, the very Indians whom he has persecuted are the ones who cut off the pack and throw it away. Redemption is achieved with the forgiveness given by the sinner’s former victims. Now we understand why Mendoza will be willing to fight and die for these people. In this eight-minute sequence, no more than three sentences are spoken, yet I never felt any need for more words. Character, theme, and action are realized visually. Spectacle becomes idea because idea infuses spectacle.

The two leading actors surprised me in opposite ways. I think Robert De Niro is the best American screen actor alive, now that Brando has apparently retired to his island; but here his performance is, like the film, all outline and no interesting detail, all wind-up but no pitch. He has imagined in a general way how Mendoza should look and walk, but doesn’t introduce the vital inflections, tics, and contradictions which made his previous characterizations fascinating. But Jeremy Irons, who has bored me in the past with a predictable mixture of diffidence and hauteur, comes on strong and fervent as Gabriel and really makes us feel the faith, courage, and compassion of the man His farewell to Mendoza before the final catastrophe is especially moving. It conveys a desperation teetering on despair but mitigated by faith.

In the supporting cast, Ray McAnally excels as Altamirano, making the weary diplomat a fascinating compound of foxiness and weary piety. Even the actor’s brogue doesn’t destroy the credibility of his characterization, since it lends his speech a sort of benevolent unctuousness.

The makers of this movie have all been involved with various recent films (The Killing Fields, Midnight Express, Chariots of Fire) which affirm the survivability of human dignity amid circumstances conspiring to destroy it. That is commendable. But moral backbone is no substitute for dramaturgical firmness and the willingness to probe. Not at the movies.

  • Richard Alleva

    At the time he wrote this review, Richard Alleva was a free-lance writer living in Washington D.C. He still works as a film critic for publications such as Commonweal today.

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