Sunday, September 4, 2011

Power Of The Church, Power Of Man, The Enduring Greatness Of The Mission

The Good: Exceptional acting, Phenomenal cinematography and direction, Intriguing plot, Decent character development
The Bad: Could have used more extras on DVD, Moments the soundtrack telegraphs emotions
The Basics: In a perfect historical drama, a slave trader becomes a Jesuit, moves into the jungle and must defend his new people against his old allies.

I think a true test of the greatness of a movie is when one adds it to their permanent collection, that unshrinking library that one defines as the essential movies they must have in their possession. The real test in this context comes when one adds a movie they study in school to their permanent library. Let's face it, often when studying a film in school it's often so analyzed that one pretty much never wants to see it again (or it's used as a cheap excuse not to read a book). To wit, there are so few high school students who come home and put To Kill A Mockingbird on their Christmas list after watching it in school. Were that the case, I suspect that title would be one of the all-time best selling DVDs. So, it should be quite something to say that I waited until The Mission came out on a 2-disc special edition DVD with all of the bonuses before buying it, over a decade, because I loved the movie and I was so unimpressed with the pan-and-scan VHS version after watching this in my 9th grade Global Studies class. So powerful was the movie that it stuck with me that long and it was almost always near the top of my list until I finally got it.

When Rodrigo Mendoza, a Spanish slaver working for Portugal, kills his brother in an honor duel, in a fit of anger, he imprisons himself and stops capturing natives in Brazil for use as slaves. He is visited in his isolation by Father Gabriel, a young Jesuit who has a mission in a remote jungle in Brazil. He challenges Mendoza to join him and his order to make some good in the world and to work for his forgiveness. Gabriel and Mendoza journey to the mission where Mendoza begins to work with the people he used to hunt. Soon, however, his path to redemption takes an abrupt turn when the territory the mission is in is transferred from Spain to Portugal, which still is involved with the slave trade.

This is a brilliant period piece that is set in the 18th Century and the first note about this movie has to be that it is an exceptional character piece. Despite the giant political issues being explored, never subjugated to the amazing scenery of the South American jungle, the characters shine through with their story. This is the tale of Rodrigo's redemption and Father Gabriel's attempt to save his soul. And their character journeys are exceptional and they are the dominant focus of the movie.

That's not to say that the movie is not a lushly filmed cinematic masterpiece, because it is. Director Roland Joffe takes the script by Robert Bolt and explodes the writing into an incredible visual feat. Great direction is not just cinematography and Joffe succeeds as a well-rounded director, establishing a visual, auditory and tonal presence throughout the film. In fact, the soundtrack to The Mission, while it stands beautifully on its own, is so perfectly blended and timed to the imagery that it's impossible to imagine the images Joffe presents without this specific score.

Father Gabriel is a wonderful character and for those who might worry that The Mission is some subtle evangelical tool, let me ease your mind. While Gabriel preaches peace, love and brotherhood, the religious dogma is balanced with a very realistic view of Church politics. Because the conflicts of the Crown and Church are not always synonymous, The Mission quite effectively reveals the weaknesses of the Church hierarchy and it does it in ways that leave Father Gabriel unquestioning in his faith, but disgusted with the organization.

Mendoza is an incredible character and his transformation throughout the film is compelling and realistic. The strength of his loss is powerful and what makes his character work is the temper and willpower he exhibits in the beginning of the movie as a slaver do not simply go away. Mendoza refocuses his willpower as devotion and his rage as activism. It's a brilliant study on what a man may do to change his life and grow as a human. Unfortunately, the resolution to the story and his character arc make some disturbing insinuations.

The characters would certainly be diminished were it not for the actors portraying them. Mendoza is played by Robert De Niro and this is one of his most underappreciated roles (this and his place as Harry Tuttle in Brazil, reviewed here!). De Niro brings his a-game creating Mendoza with an intensity and strength as a slaver, a broken man as a killer (his whole body language and voice change), and humble as a budding Jesuit. De Niro is unlike any other role he has played as Mendoza.

Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel and he is quiet and commanding as the Jesuit priest. Irons has a quiet dignity that allows him to appear righteous while still connoting humble. Irons speaks in quiet, unassuming tones that are what many associate with a holy man. Gabriel is ethical, strong and dignified and Irons creates his performance of him with his whole being.

The Mission employed natives, which gives the film a very authentic feel. As such, watching them getting captured and killed can be pretty disturbing. This movie requires almost no imagination as everything is expertly revealed to the audience by Roland Joffe. Whether you never saw it in the first run or have been waiting for a great set, this DVD presentation of The Mission is bound to be as good as it gets, with its second disc with a number of featurettes on the making of the movie.

There is a commentary track on the DVD, but the Behind the Scenes second disc does quite a bit of repetition of information. Plus, it seemed odd that the second disc is just one featurette, but it's a decent one. This is a great movie for anyone who likes a good period piece or a truly great and enduring historical drama.

For other films featuring Liam Neeson, please check out my reviews of:
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Voyage Of The Dawn Treader
The Next Three Days
The A-Team
Clash Of The Titans
The Chronicles Of Narnia: Prince Caspian
The Chronicles Of Narnia: The Lion, The Witch And The Wardrobe
Batman Begins
Love Actually
Star Wars - Episode 1: The Phantom Menace
Schindler's List


For other film reviews, please visit my index page by clicking here!

© 2011, 2007 W.L. Swarts. May not be reprinted without permission.

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