The last time I saw the late Jake Eberts, he was struggling to get distributors to look at a fresh cut of an expensive film. ‘They think they’ve seen it already,’ he whispered to me with his hand over the mouthpiece of his phone, then shrugged; he seemed to sense that he was on a hiding to nothing. And yet Eberts was a truly great producer whose films gained 66 Oscar nominations, including nine for best picture. The Mission was another notable setback for Eberts and Goldcrest films, a big-budget prestige picture that failed to connect to a substantial audience, and which, along with Revolution and Absolute Beginners, almost bankrupted Goldcrest Films. Viewed in 70mm in 1986, it seemed like a secret success, a beautifully mounted and thoughtful film out of step with commercial dictates; re-watched in 2019, The Mission is a film that swells to fill the gap left by its lack of reputation; it’s a really great movie that deserves to be praised, recommended and shared.
Jeremy Irons plays Father Gabriel, a missionary who travels to a remote South American community, who he charms with music; Ennio Morricone’s score, ingeniously integrated into the diegetic music featured, is one of the best of his storied career. Back in the 1740’s, the slave-trade was rife, and scoundrels like Roderigo Mendoza (Robert De Niro) took full advantage; Mendoza operates in a moral vacuum until he kills his own brother in an act of rage, and joins Gabriel’s group as part of his penance. When the Portuguese and Spanish decide to take the land from the indigenous tribes, Gabriel refuses to take up arms, but Mendoza uses his knowledge of combat to lead a spirited defence, although neither tactic slows the invading forces down for long.
The Mission is a powerful film about religion, and comes recommended by the Vatican and the Church Times; the central themes about the on-going conflict between might and love are admirably caught in Robert Bolt’s script, and yet unlike A Man for All Seasons, piety is mixed with explosive action scenes, brilliantly lensed by Chris Menges. The result won the Palm D’Or in Cannes, and the mix of thoughtful rumination on the place of religion and defiant action is still stirring to watch.
Perhaps you feel that you’ve seen The Mission already. But the content was way ahead of it’s time, a contemplation of man’s inhumanity to man, the exploitation of indigenous people and the way that democratic and religious institutions have, deliberately or not, supported that process. Roland Joffe’s film always looked and sounded great, but it’s never been so topical as it is now; the final post-credits stinger, as Cardinal Altamirano (Ray Mcinally) looks questioning to the camera, still invites us to think and act on the on-going tragedy of man’s inhumanity to man. ‘Thus have we made the world…’ says Altamirano, and that deep sense of responsibility pervades this laudable film.