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This movie won an Oscar for Best Cinematography.

‘The Mission’ (PG)

By Paul Attanasio
Washington Post Staff Writer
November 22, 1986

"The Mission" is everything a movie should be -- magnificently produced, epic in scope, serious in theme -- everything, that is, but good. Hamstrung by an unworkable script, the disastrous casting of Robert De Niro and, presumably, the strain of shooting in the Colombian jungle, director Roland Joffe' has come up with an indigestible lump of sanctimony that rarely goes beyond its good intentions.

A thinly veiled fable reflecting the current struggle in Latin America, "The Mission" is based on events surrounding the Treaty of Madrid in 1750, in which Spain ceded part of South America to Portugal. That territory included seven Jesuit missions and colonized Indian tribes. To the Spanish, the Indians were good Christians; to the Portuguese, they were better slaves. Local missionaries and Indians, in short, were embroiled in a hopeless power struggle involving two great kingdoms and the Vatican.

In the hands of screen writer Robert Bolt ("Lawrence of Arabia"), that history is translated into the stories of three men. Gabriel (Jeremy Irons) is the Jesuit priest who creates and supervises the missions, organizing their farming and manufacturing along the lines of a modern cooperative. Mendoza (Robert De Niro) is a fiery slave trader who, having killed his brother (Aidan Quinn) in a jealous quarrel, serves penance by joining Gabriel's order. As the greedy Portuguese salivate over all that free labor and the Jesuits resist, Cardinal Altamirano (Ray McAnally) is sent by Rome to bring the recalcitrant Gabriel into line.

The story, in short, has three different centers, and neither Bolt nor director Joffe' is particularly adept at weaving them together. Bolt and Joffe' might have focused on Altamirano, but unfortunately the most complex role is played by the least recognizable actor -- McAnally, a talented Irish stage veteran with considerable screen presence, but no star quality. It is inside Altamirano, after all, that the movie's central conflict takes place -- between the demands of conscience and the exigencies of empire. But if your mind is drawn to McAnally, your eye wanders naturally to De Niro and Irons.

But Bolt hasn't written a real character for Irons. With his wet doe eyes and quiet manner, Irons is a believable idealist, but he's saintly at the beginning and saintly at the end. And while Bolt has suggested a complex psychology for Mendoza, a man whose desire for heaven never quite transcends his own violent nature, De Niro doesn't play it. In the last five years, he's become curiously inert, and "The Mission" features his most somber and withdrawn performance yet. He's about as expressive as a church icon, and his contemporary acting approach and New York accent are comically inapt, particularly when Bolt has him delivering lines like "So me you do not love." You keep expecting to find him in the 18th century's first pool hall.

The De Niro anachronism disturbs you less than the movie's bizarre rhythms. The most arresting sequence comes right at the beginning, as you watch an anonymous priest, lashed by Indians to a large crucifix, float down the rapids and disappear in a colossal waterfall. And while composer Ennio Morricone ("Once Upon a Time in the West") has written a spectacular score, combining gorgeous church choirs, Indian panpipes and sweeping symphonic effects, Joffe' makes poor use of it -- the music, too, reaches its peak in the first 10 minutes. You experience the whole of "The Mission" as an anticlimax.

The movie doesn't spring to life again till its bloody, operatic resolution, but even there, the action is often clumsily staged. And the guns, doubtless realistic (Joffe' is a bear for detail), seem phony -- if real-life guns sound like cheap firecrackers, we expect a movie musket to roar like a cannon. Still, at least something is finally happening.

Clearly, Joffe' fell in love with the Indians and their environment, and much of "The Mission" is a paean to a threatened way of life. What's puzzling is that the director who demonstrated such a painterly eye in "The Killing Fields" has lent so little lyricism to "The Mission." He seems to distrust his own art, as if the intrinsic poetry of the Indians, the waterfalls and the verdant, overgrown landscape were enough, without adornment or visual interpretation. Similarly, Chris Menges, a cinematographer of striking ability, has chosen to bathe much of "The Mission" in a greenish haze that evokes the jungle less than a tankful of algae.

The movie ends with a "la lucha continua" postscript that only makes an already preachy movie seem preachier. But what "The Mission" leaves you with, most of all, is an enigma. Producer David Puttnam put together the director and cinematographer he hired for "The Killing Fields," a legendary screen writer, two highly regarded stars and one of the best composers alive. He spent a lot of money in the process. That the result is as dull and unresolved as "The Mission" means that good intentions, or even brains, aren't enough. How could a project so right turn out so wrong?

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