TMI Remembers: The Mission (1986)

The Mission is a 1986 drama about Spanish Jesuits in 18th century South America trying to protect an isolated tribe from pro-slavery rule. A commercial failure, it was highly praised by critics and earned numerous film awards.

With the announcement of director Martin Scorsese‘s Silence, about two 17th century Jesuit priests persecution in Japan coming early next year, we thought would take a closer look at an earlier religious film about Jesuits that also features actor Liam Neeson, who stars in both films. It’s The Mission.

The Mission
The Mission, 1986 ©Warner Bros.

The Mission begins with one of the most compelling images in all of cinema. In the dense jungles of the now Argentinian jungles, a Jesuit priest is tied in crucifix fashion to a large wooden cross and pushed out into a river by hostile members of the Guaraní people, who reject Spanish Christian convertors approaching their isolated community. The priest, barely conscious, floats through increasingly turbulent water until reaching the top of the Iguazu Falls where he slips over the edge and into the crushing spray of water below.

The Mission
The Mission, 1986 ©Warner Bros.

His death is meant to be a signal to stay away but instead, it only further incites what the priests see as a need to reach these people, and so, a determined, selfless man of the order named Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) travels to the Falls with two other priests, including Father Fielding (Neeson). Braving the Falls on his own though, he scales the dangerous natural barrier and soon faces potentially the same wrath as earlier when he encounters a hunting party of Guaraní. Unexpectedly though, he wins them over by playing an oboe, in a touching though very tense scene that has since become one of the most iconic in the film, and of Iron’s career. The tribespeople accept Gabriel into their village and his work begins.

Meanwhile, a man named Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) makes a living being slaver, ruthlessly kidnaps Guaraní for work in the nearby plantations. He is very good at his job and has a reputation with both the white settlements and the people he captures. On his return one day, he discovers his fiancé, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi) has fallen in love with another man in his absence, Mendoza’s own younger half-brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn). When he finds them in bed together, in rage, he challenges the lesser skilled man to a duel and kills him. He is later acquitted of the crime by the Spanish Governor Don Cabeza (Chuck Low), but spirals into deep despair for is actions and loss and seeks ways to pay absolution.

Father Gabriel, on a return trip from the jungle, visits Mendoza and offers him a chance to pay his penance. He will travel back to the Guaraní with him, but he must drag behind him the makings of is former life, such as his armor and weapons all the way to the top of the falls. It’s a torturous endeavor that nearly breaks him but does transform him. When he appears to the people he once hunted and kidnapped, their reaction to seeing the familiar enemy is one of astounding hope.

Directed by Roland Joffé, The Mission is a gripping, emotional story based loosely on a number of actual events. The story eventually spreads to a larger theme about the attempted suppression of the Jesuit mission and the the total enslavement of the Guaraní people but only grows more impactful as the story progresses. With powerful performances all around, partnered with breathtaking cinematography, the film’s score, written and conducted by legendary composer Ennio Morricone has become one of the most recognized and celebrated in his long career.

The Mission
The Mission, 1986 ©Warner Bros.

What makes the film a success is its authenticity. Made today, it would most likely be filled with far more graphic violence and extended fighting scenes, but as it is, remains a deeply personal story about communication and redemption. De Niro’s Mendoza is a frightening man at first, a cold and efficient trapper of human begins that is led by his need for profits and the rush of power it supplies him. The fracture of that power, felt by the loss of something he has no control over shifts his character into an emotionally calamitous state for which he can find no return to his former life. The journey he takes from hunter to savior is a remarkable one, made almost entirely in visuals as we watch not just his struggle to bear the burden of his past life up the falls but his determination to do to. At one point Gabriel sets free the massive netting of armor and swords only to witness Mendoza fetch them and continue on, unbreakable in his quest to face the people he once hunted, stripped of the power he once had. It’s a devastating sequence.

The Mission is a film that deserves a look, one that features not only an engaging and thought-provoking story, but one of great emotional payoff, despite the harrowing but necessary end. It features three uncharacteristic performances from De Niro, Irons, and of course Neeson, and will serve as a great gateway to the coming release of Silence next year.



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