(With this year’s Cannes Film Festival coming to a close, I figured that I would start of today by looking at some previous winners of the Palme d’Or. We start things off with 1986’s The Mission.)
The Mission opens with a man stoically plunging over a waterfall. That man is a priest who, in the 1740s, has been sent to convert the natives of the Paraguayan jungle to Christianity. The natives’ reaction to the priest’s arrival was to tie him to a wooden cross and send him over the falls. It’s an opening that perfectly captures one of the main themes of The Mission: the contrast between the beauty of nature and the savagery of man.
The majority of the film deals with two men. Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Spanish Jesuit who replaces the martyred priest. Father Gabriel is a pacifist who manages to win the trust of the natives through a shared love of music. Gabriel plays the oboe and, when it is snatched away from him, reacts not with anger but with acceptance. With the help of Father John Fielding (Liam Neeson), Father Gabriel builds a mission and works to educate the natives. This brings him into conflict with the local plantation owners, the majority of whom just see the natives as being potential slaves.
That’s where Mendoza (Robert De Niro) comes in. A brutish and violent man, Mendoza makes his living kidnapping natives and selling them into slavery. When Mendoza discovers that his fiancée, Carlotta (Cherie Lunghi), has fallen in love with his younger brother, Felipe (Aidan Quinn), Mendoza snaps and, in a moment of anger, kills his brother. Seeking forgiveness for his violent past, Mendoza travels to Father Gabriel’s mission, dragging all of his armor and weaponry in a bundle behind him. When Mendoza finally reaches the mission, he is not only forgiven by the natives but he also eventually ends up becoming a Jesuit himself.
And, for a while, everything is perfect. That is until the Spanish turn over their land in South America to the Portuguese and the new colonials decide that having a mission around will make it a little bit too difficult to enslave the natives. When Father Gabriel is ordered to close the mission, he refuses to do so. He says that he will stay and that he is willing to be martyred if the Portuguese forces attack. Gabriel believes that violence is a sin against God. Mendoza, on the other hand, announces that he will stay and he is prepared to once again pick up weapons to defend the mission…
Dramatically, The Mission is uneven. While Jeremy Irons and Liam Neeson are both believable and sympathetic as Father Gabriel and Father Fielding and fit right in with the film’s period setting, Robert De Niro seems miscast and out-of-place. As good an actor as De Niro is, he just doesn’t belong in the jungles of South America. Whenever he shows up or speaks, your mind immediately goes to New York City. The film tries to juggle so many theological and political issues that it can get a bit exhausting trying to keep up with it all. Watching the film, it was hard not to wish for a chance to see what a director like Werner Herzog or Terrence Malick would have done with the same material.
That said, The Mission is a visually impressive film, one that captures the beauty, the innocence, and the danger of the jungle. The scenes of both Gabriel and Mendoza climbing the waterfall are stunning to watch and, in the end, the film does have a sincere message about the ongoing fight for the rights of indigenous people. That counts for something.
The Mission received an Oscar nomination for Best Picture, though it lost to Platoon. It also won the Palme d’Or, beating out such films as After Hours, Down by Law, Mona Lisa, Runaway Train, and The Sacrifice.