Score Cut: The Mission (1986) and the Gabriel’s Oboe Moment
Film: The Mission (1986)
Composer: Ennio Morricone
Summary: In an effort to spread Christianity to the rainforests of South America in the 1750s, a Jesuit Priest named Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) attempts to build a peaceful mission near Iguazu Falls, hoping to convert the native Guarani people.
The Score Cut: Gabriel’s Oboe, track three on the soundtrack, has been performed by many famous orchestras and as part of the score, earned Morricone an Academy Award nomination.
The Moment: The Guarani people are known for their hostile attitude toward encroaching foreigners, and as missionaries try to reach out, they resist, often with deadly results. The film begins with a Jesuit priest who attempts to convert them being tied to his own cross and sent over the Iguazu Falls to his death. Undaunted, Father Gabriel climbs to the top of the Falls with nothing but the rags on his back and an oboe, perching himself on a rock in the thick jungle and openly playing a tune. The lilting music draws the warriors from the thicket and while some are spooked by the sounds, most are transfixed and allow the priest to live, escorting him to their lives.
Why The Music Matters
David Says: Based loosely on real events, this film is a wonderfully acted and beautifully photographed movie that has become more well known for its score than the story itself. The haunting and majestic music is one of Morricone’s finest works and has come to define the great composer, along with his equally iconic masterpiece for The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966). Since performed by such artists as Yo-Yo Ma and reworked into an Italian song by Sarah Brightman called Nella Fantasia. For this scene, it is remarkably effective in speaking for the priest, and Irons uses the tune to not only attract the natives but give us a sense of his own emotions. Listen as the notes change as the situation shifts from inviting, to arrival, to trepidation to curiosity. We can feel and understand what Gabriel is thinking and expressing without a single word of dialogue. That’s powerful use of music and a clever way to communicate to the audience character intentions. The entire score is a practice in expression, as many long stretches of dialogue-free scenes pass with nothing but silent actors given voice by the strength of the emotive music. That is best demonstrated in this early moment, and showcases how the right composer, with the right vision, can create something that is more than just support for a scene, but be so integral that it becomes the scene.
Dan Says: An intriguing scene is made even more compelling by adding source music. Instead of traditionally scoring the scene afterwards this score plays live as the scene unfolds. Morricone’s music is an integral part of the action. The priest’s mission to spread religion to indigenous people is paralleled by the music. The oboe’s song is another example of culture. Music is art, while religion is philosophy. By exploring the effects of one medium, the director beautifully mirrors them both. The tribe resists the strange sounds at first, but most of them grow curious. This entirely new concept isn’t accepted easily (like the metaphor for religion). One of the tribal men breaks the musical instrument, voicing his disapproval. Another man picks up the broken oboe and returns it to the priest. The tribe accepts the priest into their village. The transitional shot to the next scene is another art form: a painting. The director needed a way to show how religion spreads and how important the messenger is. We could have watched something more obvious like the priest struggling to speak in their language during the introduction. Instead, we get a poetic moment of culture swapping cultures. The bold decision to portray the priest’s quest with music and images instead of words makes this mesmerizing sequence stand out. The inviting sound of the oboe is almost bird like. From the indigenous person’s point of view it’s not quite natural. The music isn’t harsh; it’s soft, cascading up and down notes like a babbling brook. Born in a culture with music, we take this remarkable art form for granted. It is truly amazing how humanity can communicate without language, and express something words could never say.
Robert Bolt (original story & screenplay)