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This movie won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

'The Mission' (PG)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 14, 1986

"The Mission" effectively dramatizes yet another chapter in the ruthless European conquest of the Americas. It'll make you hate the whole of western civilization with every fiber of your being.

Jeremy Irons and Robert De Niro costar in this sober movie directed by Roland Joffe of "The Killing Fields" and put together by a hard-working team of heavyweights. Unfortunately their presentation is as ponderous as it is powerful. Not to mention pious.

Nobody can look holier than Irons when he wants to, and he almost always does. "The Mission" finds this ascetic aptly cast as Father Gabriel, a Jesuit missionary come to convert the noble natives of 18th-century South America. And De Niro, the slave trader turned acolyte, is so absorbed in his role you fear his eyes will roll back in his head and he'll faint.

The two holy men, along with other Jesuits (including Father Daniel Berrigan in a cameo), establish the jungle Mission of San Carlos. And the Indians come under the protection of the Church, making violins and flutes and learning to sing as celestially as a choir of Roman castrati.

But the ways of God and man conflict, with the ratification of a treaty that cedes seven Spanish missions to the slave-trading Portuguese. Though told to abandon the natives, the Jesuits stay on. And Rodrigo, who will no longer kill even to eat, must choose between his vows and his sword. Gabriel prays.

Jesuits do not make good generals, but the war between the missions and the European artillery makes for engrossing cinema -- after a long, long wait. Despite its turbulent theme, "The Mission's" predominant tone is distanced. It's a studious history structured around the letters of a papal legate, well played by Irish actor Ray McAnally.

The Pope's representative, like an 18th-century George Shultz, is caught between personal conviction and political realism. Does he sacrifice the few missions here to preserve the Jesuit order then threatened by the European powerbrokers? The picture contrasts the smooth talk of the wig-wearing diplomats with the blood and bones and burning altars their diplomacy begets. In the end, neither might, nor martyrdom prevail. Only our own dark history.

"The Mission" is majestic, sometimes moving, sometimes mawkish. Should you choose to accept it, your religious tolerance will be tested. But there are rewards -- fascinating insights into the byzantine business of diplomacy and gorgeous photography of the roaring Iguazu Falls, an eden of fog and roaring water, and of the sleepy walled city of Cartagena.

Copyright The Washington Post

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