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The Mission

The Mission poster

Synopsis

Made in 1986 about the Utopian state made by Jesuits for the Guarani people of Paraguay in the 18th century.  Robert de Niro plays a slave catcher who works for the slaveocracy.  In the jungle he warns Jeremy Irons, the Jesuit leader, that he will get more slaves.  This after a Jesuit priest was martyred by the Guarani, prompting Irons to go to the jungle to convert them.  De Niro learns that his brother has been canoodling with his fiancee, Cherie Lunghi, and in a jealous rage kills him.  Irons then rescues de Niro from remorse and sets him on a penitential path to to the Indians he formerly enslaved.  The planters want the Guarani as slaves and they appeal to the relevant authorities to get rid of the Jesuit state.  Ray McAnnally is their envoy and is impressed with the missions but still orders the state’s dismantling after hearing from both sides.  War breaks out….

Review

Robert Joffe’s film is about the same events dealt with in Fritz Hochwalder’s play The Strong are Lonely.  Compared to Hochwalder, Robert Bolt’s script for Joffe’s film is sentimental opportunism because it exploits the 1980s fashionable concern for the Amazon forest.  Joffe meretriciously conflates the plight of the present day natives of the Amazon with the Guarani Indians of 1750s (but it should be 1760s) Paraguay.  In the film the Indians live in a tropical forest whereas the Guarani’s Paraguay ecology was different.  Hochwalder’s play was concerned with the argument between Jesuitical utopianism and the self serving interests of the Spanish settler opponents.  Hochwalder ultimately argued that both sides were in the wrong:  the Jesuit state was founded on the false  premise of the supposed mutual supportiveness of material and spiritual values undermining  the real mission of spiritual salvation.  That such criticism could originate from self serving and materially interested forces does not undermine the criticism itself    The Guarani could confuse benevolent paternalism with Jesuitical Christianity and the opposing point is that spirituality should be disinterested viv a vis worldliness.  In the film the paternalist authoritarianism of the Jesuits is falsely mixed with ecological political correctness, this anachronism merely distracts from the spiritual criticism of Utopia.  The enemies of Utopia in this film are vicious slaveowners and duplicitous politicians which endows Jesuitical Utopianism with a false anachronistic case.

The Mission follows on from The Emerald Forest as it argues for the superior virtues of a forest way of life against other interests which are automatically demonised.  Joffe’s film insultingly infantilises the native Amazonians, making them look like noble savages to be paternalistically protected from white colonialism. The film admits at the end that it would have been better for the Indians if no white people had contacted them, and that goes for well intentioned but patronising film makers also.

The pseudo debate over the Jesuit state is merely a preamble to the military conflict.  De Niro is obviously ill at ease as conscience-stricken, he is happier as a sword wielder.  Julian Barnes  wrote an hilarious story about Matt, a film star clearly modelled on de Niro in The Mission.  Barnes ridicules the prima donna inanities of stars filming in jungle locations, megalomanical and buddy buddy homoerotic with Jeremy Irons.  Joffe gives Irons the intellectual leadership, explaining to his literal minded Jesuit brethren that they are an order and not a democracy, as if they wouldn’t have understood that at the outset.  In Hochwalder’s play they stick to their vow of obedience to the point of self sacrifice, that would be asking too much of these mainstream cinema priests.  In this film the Jesuits are obedient when it suits them in their self appointed role as benevolent authoritarians and yet they react with predictable pride vis a vis the Spanish court authorities.  The inconsistency in this abrupt change is glossed over by the film in its anxiety to moralise simple mindedly the Jesuits’ stance.  Irons relationship with the Papal envoy Ray McAnnally are initially diplomatically suave but ultimately lachrymose and Kum-ba-ya creepy, his pacifism simply an embellishment of useless martyrdom.  Similarly the Papal envoy. Ray McAnnally, is obviously emotionally won over by the paradisal simplicity of the Jesuit states, yet he decides for their dismantling with no sign of inner turmoil.  This is lazy acting.  He simply says he will do what his conscience dictates and swings into opposition to the Jesuits.

The planters are simply avaricious and cruel devils in tropically run down and mildewed Rococo outlandishness, though Ronald Pickup is given a more thoughtful role as the politician from Europe.

This film is opportunist in that it doesn’t tackle concerns over the Amazon forest but uses the forest as escapist spectacle which conceals the non argument at the heart of this production. The Mission is good to look at, one of the spectacular 1980s cinematic visits to the Amazon along with Fitzcarraldo and Emerald Forest.  Fitzcarraldo is about about a boat dragged laboriously through the forest, Mission is about simple sentiments dragged laboriously through the forest.

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