Cannes Film Review: The Mission (dir by Roland Joffe)

(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.

44 Days of Paranoia #28: The Departed (dir by Martin Scorsese)

For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take look at the film that the Academy named the best picture of 2006, Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

The Departed takes the plot of the 2002 Hong Kong film Infernal Affairs and transports it to Boston.  For years, crime lord Frank Costello (Jack Nicholson) has ruled South Boston with an iron fist.  However, police Captain Queenan (Martin Sheen) and his assistant, Sgt. Dignan (Mark Wahlberg) think that they have finally found a way to take Costello down.  They recruit police academy trainee Billy Costigan (Leonardo DiCaprio) to go undercover and infiltrate Costello’s organization.  To help establish his cover, Costigan drops out of the academy and does time in prison on a fake assault charge.

Meanwhile, Costello has an agent of his own.  Years earlier, Colin Sullivan (Matt Damon) was specifically recruited and trained by Costello to become a mole inside the Massachusetts State Police.  Sullivan soon finds himself also working under Queenan.

While the amoral Sullivan finds it easy to deal with his dual role of being both a cop and a criminal, the far more emotionally unstable Costigan has a much more difficult time of it.  Not helping is the fact that Costello turns out to be a legitimate madman who spends half of his time dismembering people and the other half serving as a secret informant to the FBI.  While Sullivan smoothly works his way up the ranks, Costigan pops pills and becomes more and more paranoid.

Eventually, both Costigan and Sullivan are ordered to uncover the double agents in their respective organizations.  What they don’t realize is that, even as they both attempt to learn the other’s identity, they are both seeing the same woman, psychiatrist Madolyn (Vera Farmiga.)

In the scene below, which happens to be my favorite from the entire film, Costigan and Madolyn make love after Madolyn assures Costigan that she doesn’t have a cat.  That makes sense when you consider that Costigan is essentially a rat.

I have to admit that, as much as I did appreciate certain parts of the film, I was still disappointed the first time I saw The Departed.  It wasn’t so much that the movie itself was bad as much as it was the fact that it didn’t live up to the standard set by previous Scorsese films.  The film seemed to somehow be both conventional and overly busy at the same time, with the constantly moving camera and the propulsive soundtrack feeling more like they were more the result of a director trying to be like Scorsese than Scorsese himself.  While I appreciated the comedic relief of Alec Baldwin’s performance as Queenan’s rival on the force and I thought that Matt Damon made a compelling villain, both Leonardo DiCaprio and Martin Sheen seemed to have been bitten by the overacting bug.  It was hard not to feel somewhat disappointed that, after waiting for over three decades to be honored by the Academy, Scorsese finally won his Oscar for The Departed.

However, with subsequent viewings, The Departed has grown on me.  Once I was freed up from the expectations that come from watching a Scorsese film for the first time, I was able to enjoy The Departed for what it actually was, a very well-made and entertaining crime drama that occasionally flirted with being something more.

Watching The Departed for a second time, I was better able to appreciate the sly humor of Jack Nicholson’s performance.  As played by Nicholson, Frank Costello becomes both the devil incarnate and a somewhat pathetic relic who is incapable of understanding that his time has passed.  Watching Nicholson for a second time also led to me better appreciating Martin Sheen’s performance.  Since Nicholson and Sheen are meant to the equivalent of the angel and the devil sitting on Damon and DiCaprio’s shoulders, it was necessary for Sheen to be as virtuous as Nicholson was demonic.

By the time that I watched The Departed for the third time, it was a lot more obvious to me that the entire film was, more or less, meant to be a satire.  What Nicholson’s criminal empire and Sheen’s police force have in common is that neither one of them works the way that they’re supposed to.  If there’s anything to be learned from the film, it’s that nothing means much of anything.  (The Coen Brothers would be proud.)

Finally, after multiple viewings, it becomes obvious that The Departed is very much a Scorsese film.  Even if his direction isn’t quite as showy as viewers have come to expect, there’s still enough little touches and details that remind us that this film was made by a master.  To cite the obvious example that everyone cites, just watch for the X’s that always somehow manage to appear on the wall or the carpet before anyone in the film dies.  With multiple viewings, It also became obvious to me that even if this film was set in Boston and not New York and even if the characters were Irish and not Italian, this film was still thematically pure Scorsese, dealing with themes of guilt, identity, punishment, and martyrdom.

Like all worthwhile films, The Departed is one that grows better with subsequent viewings.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others