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Awesome: 17.65%
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Pretty Crappy41.18%
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1 review, 11 user ratings

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Mission, The
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by Jack Sommersby

"Mawkish 'Mission'"
2 stars

One of the worst-reviewed films ever to be nominated for the Oscar for best picture.

In the great-looking but ultimately unsatisfying The Mission, the story takes place in 1758, in the South American jungle in Brazil where Jesuit priest Father Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is building a mission atop a huge waterfall with the help of the Indians as a refuge and protection for them because the Portuguese want to use them as slaves; he also wants to convert them to Christianity -- that's his mission. At the same time, slave trader and mercenary Rodrigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro), who's more a hired gun than a leader, is sentenced to prison after cold-bloodedly killing his younger brother Felipe (Aidan Quinn) for having carnal relations with his ex-girlfriend who just recently broke it off with him. Six months later with an unearthed conscience and genuinely guilt-ridden, Rodrigo expresses remorse to Gabriel, who visits him in his cell and agrees to let him accompany him up to the completely-erected mission carrying a very heavy load up a treacherous mountain path as penance for his crime. (Oddly, Gabriel doesn't ask Rodrigo to ask forgiveness for all the Indians he's slain.) So far, director Roland Joffé, who made a superb debut with the powerful The Killing Fields two years prior, and wunderkind cinematographer Chris Menges, who won a well-deserved Oscar for his work there, transport us to another time and place that's wonderfully textured. It's a period piece chock-full of outstanding production design and historical detail that never feels stuffy or overprepared -- there's a fluency to the widescreen compositions (the film was shot in 2.35:1 J-D-C Scope) that never get weighed down by the mannered or the mechanical. It may not be jazzingly alive like Werner Herzog's Aguirre: The Wrath of God or precisely rendered like John Boorman's The Emerald Forest, but it goes about its business decently enough in setting things up and allowing us to get our initial bearings. Soon after arriving at the mission, Roberto converts to priesthood but then Gabriel is having to deal with the leader of the Spanish territory, Altamirano (Ray McAnally), who's being pressured by the dastardly Cabeza (Chuck Low) to make the Jesuits expel the Indians so they can be relegated to slaves, and if the Jesuits refuse they'll be expelled not just from the mission but from Portugal altogether. Which sets off a clash between Gabriel and Rodrigo, with the latter regressing to his violent nature favoring a forceful solution, and the former favoring a peaceful, diplomatic one. In fact, when the majority of the Jesuits object to him telling the natives they have to leave, Gabriel, smack dab in the middle of an impossible situation, coldly reminds that the Jesuits are members of an order, not a democracy.

The Mission is certainly about a lot of important things, and its intentions are noble to the nth degree, but when you get right down to it it's a rather simple-minded and flaccid piece of work -- a mawkish motion picture that wears its giant heart on both sleeves with more aggrandized altruism than a hundred Peace Corps volunteers put together. In a major miscalculation that a lot of epic films fall prey to, it's got more in the way of scope than depth: since the possibility of visual splendor in an outdoor historical-set story is so great, it's felt this alone can be employed to dress up a weak screenplay in a weak attempt to negate its innate flaws; which is the case here as it was in screenwriter Robert Bolt's previous empty script for David Lean's overscaled 1970 misfire Ryan's Daughter that did the seeming impossible of managing to emasculate a vivid screen giant like Robert Mitchum in a trite love-triangle affair that had all the vitality of a rusty radiator. While Joffé spares nothing in granting us spectacular scenery, he doesn't shape the talking-heads scenes properly; oftentimes you're left wondering just where the dramatic center is, so the film is more of sensationalistic circumference than emotional foci. Not only is Rodrigo's religious conversion glided over but so are the Indians' conversion in that we're never allowed to feel and understand just what the mission means to them besides as a safe haven; they're just shunted off to the side to make way for Roberto, a white character in a film from a white writer and a white director. (This kind of thing was done considerably better in Bruce Beresford's magnificent Black Robe, set in the Canadian wilderness in 1634, that gave the Indians' own deep-seated spiritual views some organic clarity -- they challenged why they should convert to a religion with one god when they were perfectly fulfilled worshipping their own gods.) And when it's not coasting solely on visual waves, The Mission offers up blase simplicities like the changed Rodrigo refusing to kill a boar that's more than a bit reminiscent of De Niro's Vietnam vet depriving himself of the perfect shot of a buck in The Deer Hunter, banal dialogue by the likes of "We must work in the world; the world is thus," (I'd love to know how many outtakes it took before this was spoken without unintentional laughter), and one-dimensional villains who all but ooze pungent black scum from their pores. Time and again the screenplay takes the easy way out by ignoring its provocative implications, and Joffé's too-literal approach flattens out the ironies. There's never anything for the audience to get into because everything's either spelled out or hollowed out to the point where all the condescending eventually rankles the viewer raw.

And the main characters and one of the lead actors don't help. As quintessentially evil as Cabeza and his motley crew are, Gabriel, on the other end of the moral spectrum, is so faultless and such a goodie-goodie that he becomes a bona-fide bore at about the midway mark who we no longer have an inkling of an emotional stake in. We simply can't swallow that this supposedly impassionate priest has managed to convert so many -- when he tries persuading Rodrigo in prison to make the leap of faith, he might as well be reading him one of those solemn bedtime stories that puts children to sleep inside of three minutes. Not compensating for this, Irons comes through with one of those too-easy-to-read internalized performances that don't really come to anything; not the most spontaneous or imaginative of thespians, he can't make more of a role than what's been written, and, as he demonstrated in films ranging from Betrayal to Swann in Love to M. Butterfly, he plays the suffering succotash all too well. Granted, flat-out flat lines like, "If might is right, love has no place in the world" aren't exactly an actor's best friend, but Irons lacks the quiet magnetism that would give the role some vitality and the creativity to give it variety. Gabriel is probably the most enervatingly dull priest in cinematic history (though De Niro's dullard one in the pasty True Confessions runs a close second). Rodrigo is definitely the showier part, if only because it's the character who actually changes; and the early scenes of his take hold thanks in large part to De Niro's beautiful control and modulation -- he draws you to him and tactfully shifts tones so we don't we get a clear-cut lock on Rodrigo right away; this ambiguity is a major plus. And when Rodrigo weeps over his dead brother in front of Gabriel, De Niro masterfully pulls it off yet wisely doesn't make a big deal out of it. If the performance is missing something, it's surprise; then again, because the character of Rodrigo has a built-in limited dramatic arc, the fault is more Bolt's than De Niro's. In essence, these two characters simply aren't substantial enough to sustain all the epic proportions showered upon them, and as a result the film is fatally devoid of accumulative force -- unlike with Joffé's The Killing Fields, the viewer doesn't come out of it shaken from having been pleasurably worked over with. The filmmakers ask us to invest more emotional stake in the puerile proceedings than what's even remotely earned; and every time a scene shows promise, Joffé cuts away to another endless shot of the raging waterfalls. If anything, The Mission does wind up accomplishing something that deserves a bit of applause: for all the up-close waterfall shots, miraculously enough not a single drop gets on the camera lens. Unlike the characters, this little tidbit proudly stands out.

It's like a Sunday-shool class taught by an overwrought simpleton.

link directly to this review at http://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=6520&reviewer=327
originally posted: 10/27/10 12:21:23
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User Comments

10/27/10 dale schmucker enjoyable 3 stars
6/28/09 R.W. Welch Crack cinematography, tho a shade ponderous. 4 stars
9/09/05 Ric Great music and scenery have to make up for poor plotting and drama. 3 stars
10/23/04 UMER great visuals alongwith great performances result in a great movie 5 stars
8/27/04 Goggman Very excellent in all catagories of film. Some people might think it is boring. 5 stars
12/04/03 john script is much better than the directionbut it's a hell of a script - music is wonderful! 4 stars
11/21/03 adguy Beautiful look...beautiful music...not a bad film at all. 4 stars
9/05/03 Dimitri Aubert A movie that is definitely worth a look! 4 stars
6/19/03 The Man Gorgeous cinematography, cardboard characters, slow, thin story 2 stars
12/14/02 Charles Tatum Purty pictures, nothing more 4 stars
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  31-Oct-1986 (PG)
  DVD: 13-May-2003



Directed by
  Roland Joffé

Written by
  Robert Bolt

  Robert De Niro
  Jeremy Irons
  Ray McAnally
  Aidan Quinn
  Cherie Lunghi
  Liam Neeson

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