While Raging Bull was arguably De Niro’s greatest triumph, his other Best Picture nominated-film from the decade was one of his more forgettable movies.
The Mission is set in the 1750s and sees De Niro plays Rodrigo Mendoza a slave owner operating in South America who is one of the most powerful me in the region. Mendoza soon discovers that his half-brother Felipe is having an affair with his fiancée and kills the former in a duel. Although he is cleared of any wrongdoing, Mendoza later suffers a crisis of faith and nobody get help him out of his depression. Meanwhile, Jesuit priest Father Gabriel is attempting to build a mission for the Guaraní community who live in the jungle although he has previously come up against opposition from Mendoza. However it is Gabriel who becomes Mendoza’s saviour when he challenges the former slaver to come up with his own penance. Mendoza eventually learns the errors of his ways and asks Father Gabriel if he can take vows and become a Jesuit himself, which he later agrees to. However, all is not well as the safety that the Jesuit missions had come under threat when the ownership of their land was transferred from the Spanish to the Portuguese. With the missions proving a threat to the Portuguese’s potential enslavement of the natives, the papacy sends Cardinal Altamirano to discover if any of these institutions should remain open. Despite Altamirano’s shock at the financial success of the missions, he ultimately has no choice but to shut them down. But Mendoza doesn’t think the brotherhood should go down without a fight as he takes up his sword once again, but this time for the right cause.
The one thing I really knew about The Mission going in was that the score was fantastic. Indeed Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack for The Mission was incredibly powerful throughout and really stayed with me after the end credits had rolled. But when a film is best known for its soundtrack you know you’re in trouble and I have to say I found The Mission more than a little bit dull. I feel my primary issue with Roland Joffé’s film was that it was incredibly earnest and was more concerned it providing an accurate historical story than it was in creating entertainment. Whereas I really enjoyed Joffé’s previous work The Killing Fields, which dealt with similar themes of cultural identity and conflict, I never found myself truly immersed in The Mission. It didn’t help that stars Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons appeared to be in two different films with the former channelling Don Quixote and the latter seeming like he’s in some sort of BBC costume drama. I have to say that, while it’s admirable that he wanted to extend his repertoire, I don’t think The Mission was the sort of film that De Niro should be involved with especially due to his incredibly hammy turn. Irons fared better in the sincere role of Father Gabriel while it was also good to see Liam Neeson running around shooting foreigners, even if The Mission wasn’t really on the same level as Taken. The best performance in the entire film came from Ray McAnally as Altamirano, the narrator of the piece and the only level-headed character that the picture had to offer. There’s no denying the film looked fantastic, with Chris Menges’ cinematography being awarded with The Mission’s only Oscar, but at times this felt more like a History Channel documentary than a film made for our entertainment. Ultimately I have to say I was disappointed by The Mission, a film I had high hopes for, but at least Morricone’s score didn’t let me down.