The Mission (1986 film)
By Steven D. Greydanus
This bare-bones sequence of events is not a film plot, only a history lesson. Examining the plot of The Mission, we find that the story divides readily into three acts, each with its own moral crisis. First, there is Mendoza’s personal struggle between despair and redemption. Then comes the sad, foregone investigation of Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally), a papal legate nominally sent to inspect the work of the Jesuits in South America, but whose de facto mission is to rubber-stamp established plans to abandon the missions. Finally, there is the crisis between Fr. Gabriel and Mendoza over the issue of guerrilla resistance.
The whole film is tied together with scenes of the guilt-ridden Cardinal Altamirano dictating a barbed letter to Rome conveying both assurance and disapproval. These scenes seem to place Altamirano’s moral crisis at the heart of the drama. Yet Altamirano is the least developed and least interesting of the three key figures, more a symbol of the failure of ecclesiastical officials than a dramatically or morally interesting character that we really care about one way or the other.
The Mission (1986)
By Vincent Canby
The film's most interesting, most complex character is Altamirano, the Pope's envoy, the only person in "The Mission" who fully understands the implications of the moral choices being made. Altamirano is played as well as possible by the Irish actor Ray McAnally, though Mr. Joffe treats him as a stock figure, even down to that obligatory close-up of the large, jeweled ring on his fat finger.
The Indians, about whom the film seems to care so much, are condescended to as mostly smiling, trusting, undifferentiated aspects of Eden--innocents with sweet singing voices and a lot of rhythm.
"The Mission," which was awarded the grand prize at this year's Cannes Film Festival, is a singularly lumpy sort of movie. The film's most riveting sequence comes at the very beginning, when we see a crucified Jesuit missionary being tossed--cross and all--into the river and carried over the spectacular Iguassu Falls. Nothing that follows, including more pretty scenery and quaint costumes, comes close to equaling the drama of that one sequence--about a character who remains forever anonymous.
Yes, the Indians are played as "noble savages." When they first meet Fr. Gabriel, one wants to kill him, but he plays his flute and...voilá. The chief spares him and the Indians are peaceful and loving for the rest of the movie.
The "king" (chief) is the only Indian who has any individuality. When the Pope's envoys come to negotiate with him, they tell him they're speaking for a distant king. The chief retorts that he's a king too. That doesn't sway anyone in the movie, but pro-Indian viewers get the message.
The Mission shines a light on an important but little-known period of (South) American history. Indeed, the political section in its center is probably the best part. With its lack of negative stereotypes and lush cinematography, it's a good movie overall. Rob's rating: 8.0 of 10.
For more movies about Amazon Indians, see Review of Fierce People and Review of Medicine Man.