"The Mission" yesterday won the coveted Golden Palm award for best film at the 39th Cannes Film Festival.

The film stars Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons as two Jesuit priests in 18th-century Latin America and deals with slavery, the Roman Catholic church and the suffering of the native Indian population under the yoke of Spanish and Portuguese colonialism.

The 11-member jury awarded its special Grand Prix to Soviet exile filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky for his film "Sacrifice," a dreamlike work centering on the lonely life of a Swedish family. The award carried with it a special poignancy, since Tarkovsky, who lives in France, is reportedly gravely ill with cancer.

Tarkovsky's cinematographer, Sven Nykvist, a longtime partner of the Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman, was also honored for best artistic contribution to the director.

Director Martin Scorsese, who won the Golden Palm in 1976 for his expressionistic tour de force "Taxi Driver," was honored as best director for "After Hours," a low-budget descent into the New York nightlife that opened here last year.

The Jury Prize, which is roughly the equivalent of a bronze medal, went to Alain Cavalier's "The're se," the story of The're se Martin, a young girl who fought her family to become a nun, and was canonized nearly a century after her death.

The awards were announced by American director Sydney Pollack, this year's Oscar winner for "Out of Africa," at the seaside Palais de Festival, a vast concrete hall appropriately nicknamed "the bunker" where the films are shown every year.

In a departure from tradition, the award for best actor was split between British actor Bob Hoskins, for his role in "Mona Lisa," and French actor Michel Blanc, for his performance in Bertrand Blier's "Evening Wear." Similarly, the best-actress award was split between West Germany's Barbara Sukowa, for her starring role in Margarethe von Trotta's "Rosa Luxembourg," and Brazil's Fernanda Torres, for "Speak to Me of Love."

The Golden Camera award, which is given for best first film and actually consists of a camera, went to French director Claire Devers for her "Black and White."

Made on a budget of $22 million, "The Mission" film reunites director Roland Joffe' and producer David Puttnam, who last teamed up on "The Killing Fields," a similarly ambitious work concerning the destruction of Cambodia. "The Mission" is scheduled for a major release this Christmas.

Two other American entries, Robert Altman's "Fool for Love" and Jim Jarmusch's "Down by Law," came up empty. Jarmusch won the Golden Camera in 1984 for "Stranger Than Paradise."

The festival, which is a sort of cinephilic madhouse in which movies are shown morning through midnight for 12 days, was attended by about 2,000 producers, distributors, publicists and filmmakers, as well as about 12,000 others. This year 600 films were screened 1,500 times -- the most ever.

Fear of terrorism this year led to a beefed-up police presence and and cancellations by, among others, Steven Spielberg, Sylvester Stallone, Sam Shepard and Walter Matthau.

The Cannes awards, while prestigious, are generally believed to have almost no impact on the box office.